In June Botswana MP Konstantinos Markus spearheaded a motion that would review and reconsider the ban on hunting within areas not designated as national parks or reserves.
The motive behind Markus’ decision to challenge the hunting ban stems from the costs of increasing human-wildlife contact and conflict and has led to discussion over the benefits and challenges of conservation hunting. The aim behind lifting the ban is to protect the livelihood of many farmers, but it could also support a burgeoning “conservation hunting” industry. Yet detractors argue that the potential damage to Botswana’s reputation and the elephant population as a whole far outweigh the positive consequences.
According to a survey conducted by Elephants Without Borders, an NGO, there are some 130,000 elephants in the country, but the Botswanan government claims the figure could be as high as 230,000. It is no accident that so many elephants can be found in Botswana. The Botswanan state was previously lauded for its conservation efforts, resulting in the country being dubbed a “safe haven” for elephants. However, poaching remains a constant threat, with a spike recorded in September by NGOs and dozens killed near the famous Okavango Delta.
The main base of Markus’s argument is that an increase in both elephant and human populations has led to a corresponding increase in human-wildlife conflict. These conflicts occur in areas previously unoccupied by elephants. If the government’s figure on elephant numbers is to be believed, it is hardly surprising that complaints are being raised by farmers. Reuters reports that as much as 72% of staple crop yield in Chobe province is reduced due to elephant activity.
Botswana, despite efforts to diversify, remains an economy reliant on diamonds and beef, but 42.6% of Botswanans live in rural areas where human-wildlife conflict poses a credible threat to economic livelihoods. Therefore, if elephant numbers were to be controlled, some argue that conservation hunting could serve as a means of mitigating the damage. But how much revenue can commercial hunting bring in and would it solve the issue of human-wildlife conflict?
“The potential is massive. Its scientific and sustainable. If you look at Zimbabwe, trophy fees alone are between $1-3m just in elephants and that’s just trophy fees. Within a 14 to 28 day period in-country spending would be $20,000 plus, and in many cases with elephant hunting it could two to three times that,” says Corey Mason, executive director of the Dallas Safari Club, a US-based hunting club active in Africa.
In 2013, the Dallas Safari Club made international headlines after it bought permits to hunt five black rhinos in Namibia totalling $350,000. Mason argues that the targeted rhinos were past the reproductive age. “Conservation hunting scientifically targets (in the case of rhinos) 25-plus males who attack younger reproductive males. It is very likely that older age rhinos are the most likely to create conflict with livestock and farming,” says Mason.
However, Kate Evans of Elephants for Africa, a conservation NGO, believes that legalised hunting carries costs. She argues that the destruction of older animals could have devastating effects for elephant society. Case studies in South Africa indicate that post-reproductive bulls play a key role in moderating aggressive behaviour in younger elephants. “Old bulls still have a role in elephant society and we are trying to figure out what that is,” she says.
While the DSC says that it has a rigorous code of ethics and a system of accountability, Evans argues that many hunters place a premium on killing younger animals. “[They] would rather a young trophy in its prime than a weak or old bull,” she says. Furthermore, Evans argues that flaws remain in the implementation of legal trophy hunting: “It’s true that laws can be in place to prevent illegal trophy hunting but until you have sealed borders and professional cooperation between law enforcement agencies, it’s likely that trophies and ivory illegally obtained can be sold on and exported as part of a legal trade.”
Yet DSC’s Mason argues that in addition to the direct financial opportunities generated, there is the potential to decrease the risk of human-wildlife conflict at a community level. “Ninety percent plus of the revenue raised remains in country, with revenues being spent, which in turn are reinvested in the community in terms of employment, anti-poaching methods and wildlife conservationists. When the animal has a value there is an incentive for management at a local level as opposed to replacement by livestock or farm land.”
Meanwhile, there is an urgent need to tackle the illegal wildlife trade. On 3 September, the carcasses of nearly 90 elephants were found close to the protected Okavango Delta wildlife sanctuary, killed for their tusks. In an effort to combat illegal hunting, the Botswanan government of Ian Khama had previously formed anti-poaching teams, trained to vigorously protect the nature reserves where the elephants are concentrated. However, under the government of President Mokgweetsi Masisi, Botswana has taken a notably less committed tone. The government disarmed its anti-poaching units in May, a month after the new president took office. Military weapons and equipment were withdrawn without explanation.
With recent events leaving Botswana’s reputation as a beacon of conservation in doubt, the debate around whether to allow permits for conservation hunting is only likely to get more heated in the months and years ahead.