The global backlash against Botswana’s decision to lift its elephant hunting ban on May 22 has been strong and swift.
Tourists are already threatening to boycott the luxury safari destination – risking a key industry and source of revenue – while animal rights groups have criticized the reintroduction of a hunting quota for the first time since 2014.
With around 130,000 animals, this southern African nation has the highest population of elephants on the continent and conservationists see the country as one of the last true elephant havens.
Now, ex-President Ian Khama, who imposed the ban five years ago, says lifting the legislation would be both unwise and ineffectual.
“Resorting to killing is a blood policy that should not be supported. This will not have an impact on human animal incidents. It is a political move,” said Khama in an interview with CNN.
Botswana’s government, led by President Mokgweetsi Masisi, cited increasing conflict between humans and elephants when scrapping the ban.
Government documents shown to CNN reveal that between 2009 and 2018, 36 people were killed by elephants in Botswana and compensation for destroyed livelihoods has increased to around $2 million in the last year.
“But compare how many people are killed by elephants to how many are killed in drunk driving incidents,” said Khama.
The hunting issue is now a political lightning rod in the country. Over the weekend, Khama quit the ruling Botswana Democratic Party ahead of closely contested elections in October.
In the rural villages dotting this region, the animals are unpopular with local residents who complain that they raid crops, destroy fences and terrify people.
On the outskirts of Kasane, the gateway for tourist tours, a Zimbabwean was killed by an elephant next to a gas station last week.
“In the old days we used to hunt them and shoot them. To get rid of them, we need to shoot all of the elephants,” said Kenneth Moboya, a head of a nearby village.
Moboya says he was trampled by an elephant when he shot it six times while protecting a friend’s farm.
This is the kind of real-world impact that the Masisi administration points to.
The government acknowledges that their messaging could have been better, which is perhaps why they have hired a prominent US-based PR firm to help them, but they have bristled at outrage from outside the country.
“They are not where we are and therefore don’t live our experience. And it always OK to be a critic from the comfort of your home or the comfort of your environment … not understanding what our issues are,” said Kitso Mokaila, Environment, Wildlife and Tourism minister.
Mokaila says that recreating hunting zones will form buffer areas between communities and elephants. By shooting one elephant, he says, the others will stay away.
’500% increase in fresh carcasses’
Many conservationists believe that renewed hunting won’t impact the conflict between humans and animals. Crop-raiding and problem elephants are often part of family herds or young males, and hunters usually pursue the biggest bulls that often roam far from people in the deep bush.
“We call this the elephant heartland. It is the last sanctuary for elephants in Africa. What we thought was a sanctuary is no longer, of course, because poachers have discovered this is an area where big bulls congregate,” said Mike Chase, one of the world’s pre-eminent elephant conservationists.
Just a few days ago, Chase’s group – Elephants Without Borders – spotted a collection of recent carcasses from a fixed wing plane. They are now back to investigate, taking a helicopter so the team can land in the bush.
Recent Elephants Without Borders research shows that there has been a 500% increase in fresh carcasses spotted from the air in this region. Many of them have been poached.
The government has disputed those findings. And, lately, Chase has come under withering criticism from the government for speaking out.
“There it is,” points Chase, as the helicopter we’re in banks to the left.
From the air, the signs of poaching are clear – the skull cleanly hacked through to get at the tusks; a collection of branches to conceal the kill.
On the ground, it is far more gruesome. The poachers severed the bull’s spine with an ax or machete to immobilize the animal while they worked on its face.
The poaching finds are highly significant – not only because they show this is perhaps not the elephant haven it once was – but also because the government is lobbying to sell its ivory stockpile. These discoveries make the arguments to do so much more difficult.
Botswana is working with Namibia and Zimbabwe to change the classification of ivory to allow its sale, which could net the three countries millions of dollars. But a legal sale of ivory could also provide a smokescreen for poaching to continue.
Yet ethical or moral arguments against hunting and ivory sales don’t hold much weight here, either among citizens or the current government. Elephants need to pay their way.
“The whole world right now is trying to close those ivory markets and the question is, are we sitting on a ticking time-bomb? Because when people eventually say we are sick and tired of being zoo keepers, when there is no return in investment and they go randomly out there and massacre them, that is the real problem,” said Mokaila.
Where Khama and the Masisi government tend to agree is the long-term solution. They both believe that neighboring states, such as Angola, need help to set up their protected areas better to allow elephant populations to expand northward, rather than deeper into Botswana.
Otherwise, the elephant population here too, may ultimately come under threat.
“The sad thing is that when you see the population of elephants is reducing at a drastic rate in much of Africa and could go extinct in the years to come. We shouldn’t be killing elephants in Botswana. We should be setting the example,” said Khama.