Of Elephants and Men: Botswana’s response to lifting of hunting ban

On the heels of the controversy surrounding Cecil, an African lion shot by an American hunter in 2015 in Zimbabwe, the term “Trophy Hunt” has come to equal dollar signs for the animal rights industry.

Groups like the Humane Society of the United States and PETA have built a successful business model producing societal resentment for licensed hunters, mainly by portraying the American hunting community as gun-toting neanderthals in search of the next mammalian head on the wall.

Just as self-righteous buzz-terms like “Fair Chase” are being crudely (and improperly) overused in today’s mainstream media, it’s refreshing to finally see a country at the epicenter of the “trophy hunt” debate finally drop the hammer and take the lead with tried-and-true conservation efforts.

Believe it or not, Botswana’s recent decision to lift a ban on elephant hunting, an obviously polarizing topic, strikes at the core of real conservation endeavors all the way over here in America.

So why am I, a licensed trapper from New England so enthralled with elephants in Africa, you ask?

While elephants may not be fur-bearing animals from the Northeast United States, there is an underlying theme festering in the halls of our state wildlife agencies that directly correlates with the events transpiring in Africa. As the need by some to “stockpile” wildlife, rather than manage populations ethically (and in a sustainable fashion), continues to pulsate through our American society, it is imperative that those of us in the hunting community make note of the reasons why we support our endeavors when the opportunity arises. One could say this is one of those opportunities. 

And while the rise in elephant populations across Botswana should be prized as the epitome of a conservation success story, the country finds itself being criticized by the same animal rights ideology plaguing wildlife management efforts in North America.

Why, exactly, is Botswana lifting their ban on elephant hunting rather than following an impressionable preservationist mantra?

One aspect that captured my attention was the Botswanian government’s claims of an increase in human-elephant conflict since the ban was imposed; an obvious consequence of a growing elephant population.

Reports have also noted an increase in elephant-related damage to civilian livestock.

One should also bear in mind that elephants in Botswana are not confined to fenced reserves, allowing them to migrate freely over large distances throughout the country, and even cross over into neighboring countries - as they naturally should, of course.

As Botswana’s president, Mokgweetsi E. K. Masisi explained on his official Facebook page last week, the reasoning behind the decision to lift the hunting ban speaks for itself:


When my Government announced earlier this week [Thursday, May 23] that Botswana would be lifting its ban on elephant hunting, many people around the world, but especially in the U.S. and the UK, reacted with shock and horror. How could we do such a thing? What could possibly justify the wholesale slaughter of such noble and intelligent creatures? Is it really true that we intend to turn these magnificent animals into dog food?

All of these questions, and many more like them that have been raised in recent days, are understandable—understandable but misguided. The fact is, we in Botswana who live with and alongside the elephants yield to no one in our affection and concern for them, and we would never condone, no less promote, any of the terrible things those questions imply are in the offing. So let me explain what it is we are doing, and why.

To begin with, while it is true that we are lifting the ban on hunting, we are doing so in an extremely limited, tightly controlled fashion. We are not engaging in anything remotely like the culling of our elephant herds, and we are definitely not going to be using any elephants for pet food. Rather, after extensive consultations with local communities, scientists, and leaders of neighboring African states, we decided on a course of action that embodies three guiding principles—the need to conserve Botswana’s natural resources, the need to facilitate human-wildlife co-existence, and the need to promote scientific management of the country’s elephants and other wildlife species.

The hunting ban was originally put in place in 2014, ostensibly as a temporary measure, in response to reports of declines in some animal populations. But Botswana’s elephant population wasn’t at risk. To the contrary, while the number of elephants in all of Africa has been declining, Botswana’s elephant population has been exploding—from 50,000 or so in 1991 to more than 130,000 today—far more than Botswana’s fragile environment, already stressed by drought and other effects of climate change, can safely accommodate.

With elephants moving out of their usual range in search of food and water, there has been a sharp increase in the number of dangerous human-elephant interactions, one result of which has been widespread destruction of crops, livestock, and property. In the north, marauding elephants have slashed maize yields by three-quarters.

As an expert at the World Wildlife Fund recently noted, “A year’s livelihood can be destroyed in one or two nights by crop-raiding elephants.” Even worse, people have been injured and even killed by elephants roaming freely across Botswana’s unfenced parks and rural areas.

Adding to the problem is a sense of deep unhappiness about the hunting ban among rural people who felt they weren’t consulted when the ban was first imposed. Combined with the destructive impact of elephant overpopulation, this has transformed rural people’s traditional concern for wildlife into resentment, leading many to take up poaching.

So this is the problem that lifting the ban seeks to address. It’s not that the ban caused the huge increase in our elephant population. It’s that it has allowed elephants to move with impunity into once-hazardous inhabited areas, thus increasing the number of human-elephant conflicts and, not incidentally, the environmental and economic challenges faced by rural people.

The need to do something about the escalating level of human-elephant conflict was a central theme of the Kasane Elephant Summit I recently hosted for the leaders of Angola, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Collectively, the five southern African countries are home to more than 260 000 elephants in what we call the Kavango Zambezi Trans-frontier Area, and at our meeting we agreed that assuring the future of elephants in our region depends on our ability to ensure that elephants are an economic benefit, not a burden, to those who live side by side with them. To this end, we in Botswana will be encouraging community-based organizations and trusts to emphasize natural-resource conservation and tourism. Thus, we will be allocating more than half the elephant licenses we grant to local communities and instituting a series of strong measures designed to guarantee local people far more than just menial jobs, but rather a significant ownership stake in the tourism industry. 

In this way, we will restore the elephant’s economic value of elephants to rural populations. In turn, this will provide local communities with a strong incentive to protect elephants and other wildlife from habitat loss, poaching, and anything else that threatens their survival. In short, as they realize the economic benefits of wildlife resources, local communities will become increasingly committed to sustainable wildlife management and conservation—a commitment that will benefit both Botswana’s people and Botswana’s elephants.

Sound familiar? It should. Its the premise of regulated hunting and trapping activities on North America’s wild landscapes. Regulated cull is used (sparingly) to manage abundant populations for the health of biodiversity and coexistence with the rest mankind, while also bolstering healthier populations of wild hunt-able species in a sustainable fashion.

Inevitable facts - they tend to really put a damper on the animal rights credo.

The fact rings true that wildlife management protocols do sometimes call upon regulated hunting and trapping activities to properly manage a cherished species. Even an African nation 9,000 miles away from North America recognizes the success of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

In recent months, Botswana has been under international pressure to keep the ban in place, including torrents of online petitions and threats of tourism boycotts. Humane Society International, (the international arm of the Washington-based HSUS) warned that “reinstating trophy hunting and starting elephant culls could hurt the country’s economy.”

There’s that buzz word again - “Trophy Hunt”.

As explained by Botswana’s president himself in the statement above, the drive to lift the ban on regulated hunting of elephants is far from that of a mere “trophy on a wall”. But alas, to the vacuous short-sighted views of many activist-driven groups, any aspect of hunting and trapping (even those heavily regulated) must be viewed as an act of greed and selfishness. There is no middle-ground.

With these points in mind, the burning question remains: Now that Botswana came to its own determination of how to properly manage its wildlife, and American hunters had no hand in this kitty, who will bear the brunt of first-world animal rights ideological outrage?

Elephants in Chobe National Park, Botswana. (Photo | Flickr Creative Commons)