Botswana lifts hunting ban, citing 'conflict' between humans and elephants

An elephant crosses the main highway connecting Botswana with Zambia. Credit: AP

Botswana - home to the world's biggest elephant population - is lifting a ban on big game hunting.

In a statement, the government department responsible for environmental issues said that rising reports of conflict between humans and animals had been a key consideration in making the decision.

It said communities which previously benefitted from income generated by hunting had also suffered.

But conservationists have accused the president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, of a cynical ploy to try to win over rural voters ahead of October's elections - and said the move risked damaging Botswana's tourism business, which has been bolstered by its reputation for progressive attitudes towards protecting wildlife.

Some campaigners have already called for a tourist boycott of the country.

Botswana is known for its elephant safaris. Credit: AP
  • What's the background?

Botswana has around 130,000 elephants, the largest in the world and approximately a third of Africa's 450,000-strong elephant population.

Across the continent, elephant numbers fell by 30% between 2007 and 2014, according to the Great Elephant Census by Elephants Without Borders.

The hunting ban was introduced in Botswana in 2014 by then-President Ian Khama with the aim of better conserving the species.

Some experts say the number of elephants, which are able to roam free across borders to neighbouring Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, has soared since and become unmanageable - though others have cast doubt on the validity of those claims.

They argue that it may simply appear that way to some communities as the elephants' range - how far they travel - has expanded, in part due to climate change as their usual watering holes dry up.

Elephants often roam into farmers' fields to eat crops. Credit: Facebook/BWGovernment
  • Why has the government lifted the ban?

“We cannot continue to be spectators while others debate and take decisions about our elephants,” President Masisi told the presidents of the other countries at a meeting earlier this month.

“Conflict between elephants and people is on the rise as the demand for land, for agriculture and settlements is growing."

The motion to lift the ban was first tabled in June last year.

Vice president Slumber Tsogwane said at the time that human-wildlife conflict was "rife" due to an overlap in farmland and elephant pathways.

A single elephant can destroy an entire field's worth of crops in one night, and a herd can do it even faster - a devastating loss for small farmers who often cannot recoup the money, despite a government compensation scheme.

He also insisted that it would not be a door to promoting poaching, as there would be "stringent" measures to protect wildlife put in place - a sentiment echoed in the government's most recent statement announcing the lifting of the ban, which promised to "work with all stakeholders to ensure that re-instatement of hunting is done in an orderly and ethical manner".

Another MP, Samson Guma, described "heartbreaking" scenes as barely a week went by in his Tati East constituency without a farmer reporting that elephants had entered their land and raided crops.

As both the elephant and human population increased, he described the resulting competition for resources as being "more like a lottery than a livelihood".

Announcing the decision to lift the ban, the government said the Department of Wildlife and National Parks suffered from a "lack of capacity" which meant there was a "long response time" to reports of problems with animal control.

They also said predators appeared to have increased since the ban was introduced, causing damage as they killed livestock.

The move comes after a review which concluded in February, which recommended “a legal framework that will enable the growth of a safari hunting industry and manage the country’s elephant population within the historic range”. The committee also called for “regular but limited” elephant culling.

The government's statement argued that by reducing conflict through hunting, negative feeling towards elephants would be reduced in rural communities, who might then be more willing to participate in conservation activity.

Elephants at a watering hole near Savuti, Botswana, in 1984. The population has fallen dramatically since then. Credit: AP
  • So how do people in the country feel towards elephants?

According to a WWF report in December, many people in villages in close contact with elephant herds "hate them".

Most people in the north of the country, where much of the elephant population is based, rely on agriculture for their income.

A study carried out in the eastern panhandle of Botswana found that the average monthly income in the region was just US$60 - and the loss of a field of crops is too big a price to pay.

Many have taken to beating drums or hitting tree stumps with large sticks in a bid to ward off approaching herds.

One farmer, Keboetsewe Rabatlang, told WWF he had been forced to shoot elephants who could not be scared away.

"I have 15 people to feed from this field. It takes a whole month to plant, and the season is short. We cannot start again," he said.

"If you struggle like us, you learn things to protect your life. I can be afraid when I confront the elephant, but the risk is worth it. It will die. Or I will die."

And they do - every year, around 25 elephants and one person dies as a result of conflict.

A government scheme does exist to compensate farmers for damage to crops, people and structures, but it amounts to an average of just US$35 a year - and some farmers say getting a payout is a slow process.

But others see the roaming elephant herds as a potential route to prosperity - and eagerly sign up to schemes encouraging coexistence.

Ecoexist has helped some communities start elephant tours for visitors, to try to cash in on tourism - the country's second biggest source of foreign income after diamond mining.

In a picture posted by the Botswana Government accompanying their announcement, hunters pose next to their kill. Credit: Facebook/BWGovernment
  • What else can be done?

Organisations such as Ecoexist have tried to encourage people to develop 'elephant-aware' farming practices to reduce the amount of conflict between them and the herds.

Some of this includes encouraging better land-use planning.

Ecoexist has been tracking elephants in the eastern region, identifying 13 major corridors frequently used by the creatures when roaming the land.

They found that farms based more than half a mile from either side of the half-mile-wide corridor were 50% less likely to have fields raided by elephants.

They are now working with Botswana's land board to try to ensure that fields on or near these corridors are no longer allocated to people for farming.

They are also encouraging different agricultural practices designed to help farmers produce better crop yields on smaller amounts of land, and harvesting crops earlier.

Efforts have been made to reduce conflict between elephants and humans. Credit: AP
  • What have critics said?

Elephants without Borders director Mike Chase told National Geographic that, contrary to the government's claims regarding community income, local people had benefitted very little from the hunting industry with "little accountability" from the trusts which ran it.

But he warned the move could damage the country's reputation.

“We can have a sustainable quota, which will have negligible impact on the population,” he said.

“But you have to weigh that up and consider the international backlash... and how that may undermine our economy, our jobs, and our reputation for being at the forefront of conservation.”

An online petition opposing lifting the ban attracted more than 100,000 signatures, while opponents online called for tourists to boycott the country in protest at the move.

When the motion was first tabled, the Born Free Foundation said it was "very concerned", and warned that allowing hunting could destabilise herds and end up pushing the animals towards towns and villages - increasing, not decreasing, conflict.

"[It] could see the return of hunters, predominantly wealthy Westerners, to the African country with their wallets open and their sights fixed on securing the heads of elephants to hang on their walls back home," they said.

"Trophy hunting is not an effective way of dealing with problem elephants, controlling elephant numbers, or generating significant funds for conservation or local communities.

"Rather, the slaughter of individual elephants with particular traits that trophy hunters covet has the potential to result in immense animal suffering, not only for the targeted animals, but also for their families and wider communities, with often devastating consequences for the stability of elephant groups. This destabilisation can in turn lead to increased conflict with people."

The former president, Mr Khama, has also weighed in - accusing Mr Masisi of political manoeuvres to try to shore up votes ahead of October's elections.