On 22 May, Botswana lifted its 5-year ban on elephant hunting, citing the growing conflict between humans and animals, and the destruction of crops, as the reasoning. The rolling-back of safeguards to protect elephants, and wildlife in general, has been a priority for President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s first year in office. Soon after his election, in June 2018, President Masisi announced the creation of a cabinet committee to review the ban.
The announcement of the decision by the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism (MEWT), states that “the policy has long been hotly debated, both within Botswana and in the broader international conservation community, as part of the effort to find the best way to balance the economic needs of the country’s people and demands of conservationists.” In a press conference on 23 May, the Minister of MEWT argued that the ban was always temporary in nature.
- According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), there are around 415,000 African elephants in the wild, across 37 nations. It is estimated that this is 3-5 million less than a century ago
- In 2016, the Great Elephant Census found that Africa’s elephant population dropped by at least 30 percent between 2007 and 2014
- 256,000 elephants are estimated to be in Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, more than half of the total in Africa
- According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) researchers’ estimates, the Botswana’s elephant population of 130,000 has been fairly stable over the past 15 years
- Zimbabwe recently sold 98 elephants to China and Dubai for 2.7 million USD
“In an orderly and ethical manner”
In February, the cabinet committee formed to review the ban recommended to the government that it permit hunting again and President Masisi accepted the ruling.
The committee’s report findings recommend that:
- The hunting ban be lifted
- The elephant population be managed “within its historic range”
- Wildlife migratory routes “not beneficial to the country’s conservation efforts” should be closed
- Game ranches be demarcated to “serve as buffers between communal and wildlife areas”
- Regular but limited elephant culling” should be introduced
In a statement, MEWT said “the number and high levels of human-elephant conflict and the consequent impact on livelihoods was increasing,” and that it would guarantee that the “reinstatement of hunting is done in an orderly and ethical manner.” CNN reported that the Botswanan government plans to grant up to 400 licenses per year for hunting elephants. However, not all were put at ease by the government’s assurances. In response to the announcement in a post on Twitter, CEO of WildlifeDirect, Paula Kahumbu, said “expect mass culling next”.
Politics at play?
Many consider politics to be the main force behind the lift of elephant hunting restrictions. Masisi and his predecessor, Ian Khama, are not considered to see eye to eye on many matters and elephant hunting could just be another of a long list of Khama’s policies that Masisi would like to do away with. Khama, a staunch conservationist, imposed the ban in 2014 and favoured controversial policies, such as the “shoot to kill” policy to stop poachers and arming anti-poaching units with military-grade weapons.
I wrote earlier this year about Masisi’s reversal of the latter policy in June 2018 that removed these weapons from park rangers. This reversal received media attention along with a report of an aerial survey by the animal rights charity Elephants without borders claims that Botswanan elephant populations were in decline and of a “massacre” of up to 90 elephants in a single site. Even Khama’s brother, Tshekedi, was removed as the Minister of MWET in Dec 2019 over the elephant hunting debate. In addition, the decision to lift the ban is just before the general elections in October. It is suspected that Masisi is trying to win favour with the electorate with this decision, especially in rural areas, in an election that is expected to be very close.
Starting at zero?
Kenyan wildlife conservationist Paula Kahumbu told CNN that “hunting is an outdated practise which has no place in the modern world.” Despite intense lobbying by conservationists, the committee also seems to have ignored the fact that the ban has helped the country’s tourism industry considerably, help drive the economy, and elevate the country’s international reputation for conservation. On the other hand, hunting enthusiasts and lobbyists have cheered the decision. Safari Club International (SCI), a U.S.-based group that lobbies to remove restrictions on trophy hunting worldwide told the CBC regarding the committee’s report that “these findings clearly show that hunting bans actually hurt wildlife conservation.”
The original ban was in part to curb the supply of raw ivory, which is also banned by an international agreement, but countries like Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe are seeking to remove these restrictions. In an interview with the Telegraph, Dan Bucknell, the executive director of Tusk, the Duke of Cambridge’s conservation charity, said “International efforts to stop the illegal ivory trade will certainly suffer if Botswana’s ban on hunting is lifted. We fully understand that human-elephant conflict is a very real and growing problem for rural communities across much of Africa, but there are many effective approaches that can be taken to prevent it and protect people and their livelihoods,” he said. It is unclear whether the government in this process weighed the effectiveness of alternative approaches or is simply content in doing away with any and all protection strategies.
Image: Dariusz Labuda / Pixabay (link)