PRESIDENT Mokgweetsi Masisi of Botswana said last week that “elephants bleed the government coffers” as “Botswana is indirectly subsidising and financing its elephant population”.
This statement came days after the government released its Hunting Ban Social Dialogue Report on elephant management, proposing lifting the trophy hunting ban, regular elephant culling, elephant meat canning for pet food, and the closure of some wildlife migratory routes.
The heated media debate that followed turned into a political feud over the sovereignty to practise wildlife management without meddling from the West, and is being used by the government as an election campaign.
A hugely inflated estimate of a supposedly growing elephant population, with figures as high as 237000 elephants, was used by the Botswana government last year during the community stakeholders’ consultation process.
Since the Social Dialogue Report handover, a more accurate number of 130000 elephants is suddenly being used by the government and associated media.
This raises the question: why the change of heart in terms of which elephant population number to use?
For this, we need to understand the importance of rural votes to the ruling Botswana Democratic Party in the coming national elections later this year.
To win those vital rural votes, the implementation of culling and hunting has been proposed as a solution to Human Elephant Conflict (HEC). Konstantinos Markus (Maun East MP) claims “communities have become very hostile and negative towards wildlife”. Thus a higher and ever-increasing elephant number supports the HEC argument.
“Reintroducing trophy hunting and elephant culling will not stop HEC or poaching”, says Mary Rice, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency.
“Nor will introducing a legal trade of ivory and other elephant products, which flies in the face of Botswana’s commitments as a founding member of the Elephant Protection Initiative.”
A carrying capacity of 54000 elephants is widely quoted to justify the government’s argument, along with wild and unsupported claims from the hunting fraternity that Botswana’s elephant population is 10-20 times larger than the country’s actual carrying capacity, creating major threats to its wildlife conservation.
“The whole concept of a carrying capacity for elephants is a relic from commercial livestock farming, which has no real meaning in the management of Africa’s highly variable savannah ecosystems”, says Keith Lindsay, conservation biologist working with the Amboseli Trust for Elephants.
Restricting the movement of wildlife along migration corridors can only push elephants further towards villages, increasing HEC, and the fences will kill many other wild animals in the process.
“A more effective solution would be a well-resourced programme of public education and crop protection in agricultural areas, along with the long-awaited opening up of safe corridors through the Caprivi into Zambia and the removal of artificial water points”, says Lindsay.
Botswana’s international reputation as a prime photographic tourism destination will come under threat if the Social Dialogue Report is accepted by the Masisi government.
Turning one of Africa’s iconic species into canned pet food has provoked international condemnation and the proposals have already been renamed “Botswana’s Blood Law” by conservation spokesperson and lodge owner Dereck Joubert.
Tourism contributed $687.5million (R9.9 billion) directly to the economy in 2017, accounting for 11.5% of gross domestic product and 76000 jobs or 7.6% of total employment, with enormous potential for further growth, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. Trophy hunting, by comparison, generated $20m and 1000 jobs in 2014.