The giant bush fires that swept across the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) in Botswana last month have finally burned out, but the damage is still being assessed.
Survival International raised the alarm about the situation on September 8 with a news release indicating that huge fires were destroying a lot of vegetation, including the tsamma melons on which the G/wi, and the other San peoples of the Kalahari, depend for water during the dry season.
These fires have not been the first to hit the area, of course, but evidently they were far larger than earlier blazes. According to Jumanda Gakelebone, speaking early in the month, “Sometimes there are fires but this is a lot bigger than before. People are trying to put it out but it’s too fast. Life for [the people who live in the reserve] is going to be very very difficult because the melons will be burned.”
An assessment last week of the extent of the fires indicates that about 80 percent of the CKGR has been devastated. The conflagrations roared through about 40,000 square kilometers of grasslands. The San people who live in the reserve—who defy the hostility of the Botswana government, which denies them the right to use water from a borehole—are now threatened by the destruction of their food and water sources. The melons that have supplied their water for millennia, and many species of roots and tubers they have traditionally eaten, have all been destroyed.
The fires fortunately did not kill any San people, and the government claims that little if any wildlife was harmed. Edmund Moadi, an official in the Botswana Ministry of Environment, Wildlife, and Tourism, says that the severity of the fires was probably due to the large amount of rainfall last year, which produced unusually lush vegetation. With drier conditions this year, everything was ready to burn. No one knows how the fires started.
Mr. Moadi said that his country does not have the resources to fight huge wildfires—it lacks airplanes, relying instead on volunteers plus army and police forces. He denied allegations that the government had tried to cover up the extent of the destruction. “The fires took us by surprise and we have been busy putting them out,” he said. He also denied that the blaze had affected the San people: “Fortunately the areas burnt are not those where there are settlements.”
The major issue for the G/wi and the other San peoples, now more than ever, is access to water and foods. The tourist lodges and diamond mines planned for the CKGR will not have problems gaining access to water. They will be permitted to bore wells for the water they need. The only people in the reserve not allowed to have drinking water are the indigenous San groups.
During the fires, a tourist lodge on the edge of the CKGR reported periods of heavy smoke, though the facility itself was unharmed. Last week, a spokesperson for the Botswana Tourism Board told the Sunday Standard, a Botswana newspaper, that the tour operators were juggling around tours and offering alternatives to tourists who had plans to visit the CKGR and its vast wildlife resources. Tourism and mining are both important industries for Botswana.