Botswana Troops Get Up Close and Personal with Wildlife before Anti-Poaching Missions

GABORONE, Botswana - Mwisho, a lion cub adopted by members of the Botswana Defence Force, plays with visitors October 24, 2011 at the BDF wildlife awareness facility. The facility houses an assortment of reptiles and mammals, allowing military members to gain familiarity with their southern African nation's diverse wildlife before deploying on counter-poaching missions. (U.S. AFRICOM photo by Vince Crawley) U.S. AFRICOM Photo GABORONE, Botswana - Mwisho, a lion cub adopted by members of the Botswana Defence Force, plays with visitors October 24, 2011 at the BDF wildlife awareness facility. The facility houses an assortment of reptiles and mammals, allowing military members to gain familiarity with their southern African nation's diverse wildlife before deploying on counter-poaching missions. (U.S. AFRICOM photo by Vince Crawley)
GABORONE, Botswana - Sergeant Omphile Machongo handles a snake at the Botswana Defence Force's Snake Park and wildlife awareness facility October 24, 2011, near the capital, Gaborone. The facility houses an assortment of reptiles and mammals, allowing military members to gain familiarity with their southern African nation's diverse wildlife before deploying on counter-poaching missions. (U.S. AFRICOM photo by Vince Crawley) U.S. AFRICOM Photo GABORONE, Botswana - Sergeant Omphile Machongo handles a snake at the Botswana Defence Force's Snake Park and wildlife awareness facility October 24, 2011, near the capital, Gaborone. The facility houses an assortment of reptiles and mammals, allowing military members to gain familiarity with their southern African nation's diverse wildlife before deploying on counter-poaching missions. (U.S. AFRICOM photo by Vince Crawley)
GABORONE, Botswana - A fully grown crocodile lounges in a pool October 24, 2011, at the Botswana military's Snake Park and wildlife awareness facility near the capital, Gaborone.
The facility houses an assortment of reptiles and mammals, allowing military members to gain familiarity with their southern African nation's diverse wildlife before deploying on counter-poaching missions. (U.S. AFRICOM photo by Vince Crawley) U.S. AFRICOM Photo GABORONE, Botswana - A fully grown crocodile lounges in a pool October 24, 2011, at the Botswana military's Snake Park and wildlife awareness facility near the capital, Gaborone. The facility houses an assortment of reptiles and mammals, allowing military members to gain familiarity with their southern African nation's diverse wildlife before deploying on counter-poaching missions. (U.S. AFRICOM photo by Vince Crawley)
GABORONE, Botswana - Sergeant Omphile Machongo handles a snake at the Botswana Defence Force's Snake Park and wildlife awareness facility October 24, 2011, near the capital, Gaborone. In the background in a white shirt is U.S. Africa Command's civilian deputy, Ambassador Tony Holmes. The facility houses an assortment of reptiles and mammals, allowing military members to gain familiarity with their southern African nation's diverse wildlife before deploying on counter-poaching missions. (U.S. AFRICOM photo by Vince Crawley) U.S. AFRICOM Photo GABORONE, Botswana - Sergeant Omphile Machongo handles a snake at the Botswana Defence Force's Snake Park and wildlife awareness facility October 24, 2011, near the capital, Gaborone. In the background in a white shirt is U.S. Africa Command's civilian deputy, Ambassador Tony Holmes. The facility houses an assortment of reptiles and mammals, allowing military members to gain familiarity with their southern African nation's diverse wildlife before deploying on counter-poaching missions. (U.S. AFRICOM photo by Vince Crawley)
The Botswana Defence Force numbers about 13,000 uniformed personnel, plus several lions, a couple of crocodiles, and a few hyenas and baboons. Not to mention the snakes.

Members of the Defence Force spend much of their time in the bush patrolling against poachers and rustlers in and around some of Africa's most important wildlife reserves, so the BDF has assembled a menagerie of creatures at one of its military camps to help soldiers become familiar with how to work in close proximity to their nation's wild animals.

"These animals are not as scary as people think," explained Sergeant Gosetsepako Lekgowe as he deftly handled what he described as a "very venomous" boomslang snake. Hint: If you hold it behind the head, it can't bite you. If it does bite you, the (often fatal) venom is relatively slow and takes several hours to start destroying your internal organs, which these days is usually enough time to obtain anti-venom. Lekgowe, an animal attendant and small-arms instructor for the Botswana Defence Force, gave a demonstration of his country's wildlife in late October 2011 during a visit by officials from U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).

While handling most of the snakes in the compound, Lekgowe kept a safe distance from a black mamba in a nearby cage -- these are among the most poisonous creatures in the world, and their fast-acting neurotoxin venom will kill an adult in less than half an hour. There is even a documented case of a black mamba killing a fully grown elephant. The fast-striking reptiles can grow up to 8-feet or longer. They use their eyesight mainly to detect motion, so if you accidently encounter one, it's recommended to back away slowly ... very slowly.

The puff adder is problematic because its tan mottled skin is a perfect camouflage for dusty trails, where it likes to bask in the daytime heat, making it easy to step on. "It's very fast-striking but very lazy to get out of the way," Lekgowe explained. "Most people step on it and it strikes."

A sign at the front of the compound explains that this is the "Snake Farm," and for decades it's been a place where soldiers can get up-close-and-personal with their nation's reptiles before heading out on deployment. In recent years, the snakes have been joined by baboons, hyenas, crocodiles, and lions. Harmless creatures such as Zebra and impala roam at will around the military installations near Botswana's capital.

The lions typically came to the compound after reports of livestock attacks, a situation that indicates they'd become too familiar with being near people and so were willing to approach farms. The BDF specialists head out, tranquilize them, and bring them to the Snake Park where they live inside well-fenced enclosures. One recently born cub, Mwisho, was being partially tamed, spending most of her time in the company of soldiers after her siblings had perished in the lion enclosure.

"Most the operations we do are assisting the Department of Wildlife in anti-poaching," explained Brigadier Mpho C. Mophuting, commandant of training for the Botswana Defence Force's Ground Forces Command. The Snake Park facility provides an opportunity for soldiers "to see how to behave around an animal."

The people of Botswana -- they refer to themselves as the Batswana -- are proud of the diverse animal life in a nation where tourism accounts for more than 10 percent of annual GDP (diamond wealth and other mining accounts for another 40 percent -- Batswana are among the most economically successful people in Africa, with an average per capita GDP of $14,000, almost half that of the European Union).

Botswana hosts some of Africa's most important biodiversity, including world-class wildlife parks and some of the largest elephant herds on the continent. But the nation faces serious problems with poaching -- elephants for their ivory and rhinos for their horns. Cattle poaching is also a problem, especially along border areas.

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