Botswana Considers Lifting Big Game Hunting Ban To Allow "Regular But Limited Elephant Culling"

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Officials in Botswana are contemplating the reversal of a 4-year-old ban on big game hunting, with a report from last week recommending "regular but limited elephant culling" and "elephant meat canning" for pet food and other products. 

The country is home to a third of Africa's elephant population, a figure that is estimated to be around 130,000 individuals. This makes Botswana the nation with the largest elephant population in the world and a locus for wildlife tourism.

But lawmakers are now making the case that the real number is higher and that elephants' crop-trampling ways are too much of a nuisance for small-scale farmers. They recommended lifting the ban on big game hunting introduced under the former president Ian Khama in 2014 on the back of surveys exposing declines in wildlife populations to the country's north. 

Current president Mokgweetsi Masisi set up a committee to reassess the policy in June 2018, shortly after he took office in April. The committee has spent the intervening months discussing the ban with various organizations as well as local communities and individuals before coming to its conclusion, as written in the report handed in last Thursday.

"We recommend... a legal framework that will enable the growth of a safari hunting industry and manage the country’s elephant population within the historic range," said Frans Van Der Westhuizen, committee chair, Reuters reports

In addition to the "regular but limited" culling of elephants, it advises closing wildlife migratory routes "not beneficial to the country's conservation efforts", using game ranches as "buffers between communal and wildlife areas", and the "establishment of elephant meat canning" for pet food and other products. There is also a clause that recommends managing the elephant population within its "historic range".

Otisitwe Tiroyamodimo, the director of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, told BBC News that elephants' range has been expanding due to many factors, climate change included. 

"We started seeing that as soon as the rain started decreasing, the vegetation started deteriorating and then the elephants naturally migrated outside their natural range because they were getting very little water and very little feed," he explained.

Some are now arguing that 130,000 elephants are too many for the ecosystem to handle (even if scientists believe Africa may have been home to as many as 20 million elephants pre-colonization). But supporters of the ban point out that reversing it will damage the country's reputation for conservation and hurt the country's tourism industry, which has grown since the ban was introduced in 2014. 

Recent surveys also suggest that elephant numbers are not increasing, despite assertions made by lawmakers. Meanwhile, poaching is on the rise.

A study from conservation charity Elephants Without Borders published in September found poaching had increased 600 percent on the previous audit in 2014. 

"We saw with our own eyes 157 confirmed poached elephants," Mike Chase, director of the charity, told BBC News.

"We estimate that the total poached in the last year is at least 385 and probably far more because that is based on what we actually saw and have not had time or finances to visit all carcasses on the ground."

A white paper will follow the committee's recommendations to give Parliament a chance to discuss reversing the ban, Masisi has said.

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