After a five-year suspension, Botswana has lifted its ban on hunting elephants, the government announced in a statement yesterday.
Botswana has the world's largest elephant population and holds a third of all the elephants in Africa, but the ban on hunting, which came into place in 2014, has resulted in an increase in human-animal conflict, it said.
The move has already prompted anger from conservationists and accusations of being politically motivated to garner votes from villagers who share habitat with elephants, given the upcoming general elections in October.
It could also affect Botswana’s international reputation, which has previously been seen in a positive light regarding conservation, and its tourism, Botswana's second-largest source of foreign revenue (after diamonds).
Between 2007 and 2014, Botswana's elephant population dropped by 30 percent, according to the first pan-African Elephants Without Borders census in 2016, prompting keen environmentalist and then-President Ian Khama to implement the ban to aid conservation. However, since June 2018, a committee under President Mokgweetsi Masisi has been reconsidering the suspension, and in February recommended the ban be lifted.
“[We found] The number and high levels of human-elephant conflict and the consequent impact on livelihoods was increasing,” the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism said in the statement, announcing that it would ensure the “reinstatement of hunting is done in an orderly and ethical manner” and in accordance with the law and regulations.
It said that while hunting would not meaningfully reduce the number of elephants, claiming that Botswana's population has nearly tripled since 1991, income from the "sport" would benefit local communities. According to Bloomberg, the average cost for a legal hunt in neighboring countries is $45,000.
Elephant population numbers in Botswana are heavily debated. Environment Minister Kitso Mokaila has the figure at around 160,000, though the government has previously suggested it could be up to 230,000, though scientists and conservationists put it firmly at 130,000.
Since the suspension was put in place five years ago, elephant numbers have increased in some areas, as has their range – mainly due to expanding agricultural land, and climate change-induced drought resulting in habitat loss, pushing them to encroach on human settlements, which can be dangerous, even deadly.
Elephants wandering too close to villages can destroy an entire season’s crops in a day, hugely affecting the livelihoods of local communities who said that the Department of Wildlife and National Parks has been taking too long to intervene and control destructive elephants. One of the main takeaways, according to the review, was appreciation from local communities that bear the brunt of elephant conflict on actually being consulted.
“Sharing their lives with a five-ton animal that threatens their lives, destroys their crops, damages their properties – I share their anguish,” Mike Chase, director of Elephants Without Borders, told National Geographic back in February.
“But you have to weigh that up and consider the international backlash [of lifting the ban]... and how that may undermine our economy, our jobs, and our reputation for being at the forefront of conservation.”
Conservationists argue that elephant numbers may be on the increase in some areas of Botswana, but elephant numbers across Africa have decreased by an estimated 140,000 in the last decade thanks to poaching for ivory, and opening up elephants to hunting will be devastating. Botswana's reputation is not being helped by the fact it, along with Zimbabwe and Namibia, will be lobbying to lift the ban on international ivory sales to shift their stockpiles thought to be worth $300 million at the next international CITES meeting in October. Nor the fact it dismissed an independent peer-reviewed report last year that elephant poaching in the country is actually on the increase.
However, it is hard to argue against a country wanting to be in charge of making its own decisions regarding issues that affect its wildlife and people without feeling a little hypocritical. After all, many countries in the West allow the hunting of endangered animals, or cull their native wildlife when they consider them pests, without thought to international opinion.