Botswana, Where Elephants Are Key Election Stakeholders
A recent decision to lift a ban on elephant hunting could swing the upcoming election and reshape global conservation efforts.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because controlled hunting could actually help save elephants.
Baabetfwe Motshegwa joined the Mmadinare Development Trust in 2014 — the year that then-President Ian Khama instituted a nationwide ban on all hunting in Botswana. Until then, the organization, a collective formed by villagers in central Botswana, used to earn around $9,000 from selling five elephants to overseas hunters every year. Elephant hunting also provided employment opportunities for the 17,000-strong community. “Our revenues collapsed overnight. … Our coffers are empty,” says Motshegwa.
A decision by current President Mokgweetsi Masisi in May to lift the ban now promises to revive the collective’s revenue stream — and potentially elevate the sagging political fortunes of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). Internationally, conservationists and several celebrities — from Ellen DeGeneres to Kristin Davis — have criticized the move. Davis has called for a tourism boycott of Botswana. A survey commissioned by the nonprofit Humane Society International found that 73 percent of U.S. respondents believed that reintroducing trophy hunting would harm Botswana’s image as a leader in wildlife conservation.
But Masisi’s government has concluded that allowing controlled hunting of elephants — initially a quota of 400 annually will be allowed — will assist the president in retaining power in the country’s October elections without hurting conservation efforts. With somewhere between 130,000 and 160,000 elephants, Botswana has the largest elephant population in Africa and the animals have a significant impact on the nation’s economy. Tourism contributed nearly 12 percent of the country’s GDP in 2017. Hunting brought an eighth of the tourism revenues before the ban, which has grown unpopular among Botswana’s rural inhabitants. A single elephant can destroy a field of crops in a night. And last year, 15 Botswanans were killed by elephants.
If it pays, it stays.
Peet van der Merwe, North-West University, Potchefstroom
In a meeting with local reporters earlier this year, Masisi said he needed to reverse some of Khama’s policies — such as the elephant hunting ban and a partial alcohol ban — to reverse his party’s declining popularity. The vote share of the BDP, which has ruled the nation since independence in 1966, dipped below 50 percent for the first time in the last national elections in 2014. A government panel of experts appointed by Masisi recommended lifting the ban, citing human-animal conflicts. And several regional conservationists and researchers point to evidence from Kenya, South Africa and Botswana itself that suggests that controlled hunting gives local communities an economic incentive to look after their wildlife.
“If it pays, it stays,” says Peet van der Merwe, professor at the School for Tourism Management at the North-West University at Potchefstroom, whose research backs this thesis.
Botswana’s success in increasing its elephant population has for years been held up as a global exemplar. How its latest move unfolds for the nation’s elephants will influence conservation debates well beyond the country’s borders, say experts. The debate over whether regulated trophy hunting might actually help conservation figured in last week’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna in Geneva.
Botswana’s elephant population has increased nearly tenfold since 1970, according to the U.N. Environment Program. Delve into the details though and you’ll note that this elephant explosion took place entirely during a period when controlled hunting was allowed. Through extensive aerial surveys, Mike Chase, founder of Botswana-based nonprofit Elephants Without Borders, showed a 600 percent increase in elephant poaching between 2014 and 2018, leading some experts — although not Chase — to suggest that local communities were driven to find illegal sources of income to replace regulated hunting. While the Botswana government rejected the research that highlighted its failure to protect elephants despite a hunting ban, international conservation groups and researchers backed its accuracy. Chase’s research also showed that nationally, elephant numbers held steady — and did not increase — over the period of the ban.
In South Africa, a recent expansion of the game ranching industry and trophy hunting has coincided with a dramatic increase in populations of endangered species like the roan antelope, from 1,000 in 2001 to 7,000 today. And in 2011, York University researcher Nicolas Jordan Deere showed that Kenya had witnessed a 90 percent decline in numbers of most animal species since a hunting ban in 1977. The evidence makes Botswana’s decision to bring hunting back “a no-brainer,” says Lelokwane Mokgalo, a Gaborone-based doctoral student in tourism management.
For sure, the issue is divisive. Several international groups and public figures have criticized Masisi and exerted pressure on the Botswana government to reinstate hunting. Unlike villagers in Mmadinare, some communities have successfully transitioned away from elephant hunting to safaris that focus on photographing animals, though Tuelo Bapedi of the Sankuyo Tshwaragano Management Trust, one such community, adds that “if the ban is lifted, we will make a bit more.” And while Chase acknowledges that a sustainable hunting quota would have a negligible impact on the population, he is wary of the “international backlash … and how that may undermine our economy, our jobs and our reputation for being at the forefront of conservation.”
But Botswana’s history shows what it can achieve with carefully managed hunting. Inspired by the success of a similar program in Zimbabwe, Botswana introduced a program in the early 1990s that allowed “communities to have more say in their natural resources” so that it “would incentivize conservation,” says Mokgalo. Under the program, communities were allocated annual hunting quotas based on wildlife surveys. Communities then sold those animals to private hunting companies. Trusts were set up to distribute the money to projects that would benefit the entire community such as improved water infrastructure or new school buildings. Hunting regions were kept separate from areas popular for photographic safaris. In an effort to curb mismanagement, community control over the program was reduced through reforms in 2007, though controlled hunting continued until 2014.
Yet while experts agree that hunting 400 elephants per year will not doom the species, there’s also no evidence, says Chase, that this will reduce human-animal conflict, though Mokgalo hopes for “increased efforts by communities in fighting poaching due to benefit realization from wildlife.”
For Masisi’s government, the decision to restore more control over their elephants in the hands of rural Botswanans than with conservationists and foreign tourists is part of a broader political battle. The current president and Khama, his mentor who handed over power to Masisi only last year, are now bitter rivals. Khama has accused Masisi of betraying his trust, continues to support the hunting ban and has broken from the BDP, threatening to support opposition candidates. Khama’s father was a former president, and the family continues to wield political and social influence in Botswana.
While supportive of the move to lift the ban, Mokgalo is also wary of communities becoming too dependent on hunting. “As much as hunting is good for communities and conservation, it must be data-driven,” he says. “Communities should be equipped to deal with a suspension” if animal numbers drop. If the elephants don’t stay, it won’t pay — for Botswana’s rural population, or Masisi.