Botswana — Their plight captured the world’s imagination as they fought for their natural homeland. The Kalahari Bushmen’s battle to retain the nomadic lifestyle they have enjoyed for thousands of years amid the arid sands of the great Kalahari desert, is one of the most emotive in modern-day Africa.
But the beleaguered Basarwa people have now been dealt another blow. Devastating fires have destroyed almost all of the huge Central Kalahari Game Reserve. For the past two weeks flames have swept through 40,000 sq kilometres of dry grassland laying waste to 80 per cent of the reserve, an area twice the size of Wales.
For those Bushmen still managing to live by hunting game and gathering roots and tubers inside the reserve, it threatens their survival in this most inhospitable of terrains as the flames consume vital vegetation and drive wildlife away.
The Tsamma wild melons, which provide a vital source of hydration for the Basarwa nomads, are being lost to the fires. Human rights group Survival International, which is monitoring the situation, said: ‘The fire is advancing across the dry grassland in the northern part of the reserve and destroying wild melons which provide a vital source of water for the Bushmen during this very dry season.
It is a cruel setback for the Basarwa, who are thought to be one of the oldest cultures in the world, dating back thousands of years, who in 2006 finally won the right to return to their ancestral land after Botswana’s High Court ruled they had been illegally evicted by the government. The Central Kalahari Game Reserve, believed to be home to around 250 truly nomadic Bushmen, is one of the world’s largest wildlife reserves. Its spectacular biodiversity, including desolate plains, ancient riverbeds and salt pans, has made it a favoured tourist destination. The wilderness area is also home to thousands of species, including giraffes, hyenas, lions, cheetahs, leopards and rare wild dogs.
It is understood the fires have avoided the Basarwa settlements, and there are no casualties. But the seriousness of the situation has only just been acknowledged by the Bostwanan government, prompting allegations of a cover-up to protect the country’s vital tourist industry.
Edmund Moadi, deputy permanent secretary in the Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, said the major fires had now been extinguished. But he admitted that they had been the worst for many years, partly because last season’s record rainfall had produced lush vegetation that provided fodder for the flames.
Botswana’s lack of fire-fighting resources had made it difficult to cope with a blaze on such a scale. ‘In terms of aeroplanes, we do not have any,’ Moadi said.
‘We rely on community volunteers, the army and police force – anyone who can do a bit of firebeating. But the job is difficult because the heat is intense in the daytime and you have to work by night when it is cooler but visibility is poor.’
The mainly flat reserve – which has no permanent habitation, just a scattering of campsites – is normally covered with bush and grasses and areas of larger trees. Among the inhabitants unique to the reserve are the barking geckos, which limit their day to a few cool hours of the evening.
Forty kilometres north of the fossilised river, staff at the luxury Deception Valley Lodge on the boundary of the reserve said yesterday that disturbing amounts of smoke and smog had swept over their area but had now subsided.
Assistant camp manager Nadia Fourie said: ‘We get our news from chance encounters at the veterinary fence and our information is that the fire has passed an area 80 kilometres from us.’ The reserve was originally established by the Bechuanaland colonial government in 1961 to protect not the wildlife but the Basarwa. The Bushmen had been brought to world fame by Laurens van der Post’s BBC documentary series and book, The Lost World of the Kalahari. Van der Post described the Basarwa – which means ‘those without cattle’ – as the original natives of southern Africa who represented the ‘lost soul’ of all mankind.
Their image has remained vivid in Western imaginations, prompting an outpouring of support when the government of Botswana began relocating them in the Nineties.
The government – which blocked the Basarwa’s main borehole in the centre of the park – claimed that it could not guarantee their welfare in the vast reserve. But after an exploration deal was signed with diamond mining firm De Beers, rumours spread that the government wants to clear the park to allow for diamond extraction – something it strenuously denies.
In 2006, the Botswana High Court ruled that the eviction of up to 4,000 Basarwa from the reserve was illegal. But Survival International claims that the government has done little to help them return to the park, leaving them instead to live in squalid resettlement camps on its fringes. In Gantsi, the closest town to the fire, district commissioner Jefferson Siamisang, said the area affected ‘is a huge, huge chunk of land’, explaining that ‘while flying over in a helicopter we have not seen any wildlife deaths yet. The animals have moved to desert areas or salt pans. But the vegetation, which offers shelter from the scorching desert heat and grazing, has been greatly affected. Vegetation is their source of life. The wildlife will struggle.’
He added that the causes of the fires were unknown and that some had started outside the park.
Moadi denied that the government had attempted to conceal the seriousness of the situation. ‘The fires took us by surprise and we have been busy putting them out,’ he said. ‘In the next few months, we will learn from this year’s experience.
‘For instance, plans are in place to improve firebreaks in affected areas. The major fires are out now, but one cannot say the problem is over until the rainy season starts, hopefully in October, but maybe November.’
He denied that the Basarwa had been affected by the blaze.
‘Fortunately the areas burnt are not those where there are settlements,’ he said.