Botswana has lifted its ban on hunting based on five myths about that country’s elephant population. The decision has as much to do with Botswana’s upcoming elections and the rural vote as it does with conservation in general, and elephants in particular.
Botswana’s Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism has just announced that “the government of Botswana has taken a decision to lift the hunting suspension”. The country’s new president, Dr Mokgweetsi Masisi, recently hosted a summit in Kasane for five southern African heads of state whose countries are home to roughly half the world’s remaining elephant population. The purpose was to forge a common regional strategy for elephant conservation in the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (Kaza).
Since Masisi took over the reins from Ian Khama – a lone voice in the region against trophy hunting and trading ivory – he has been angling to rescind the hunting moratorium. Critics suggest that this is an attempt to retain the rural vote for the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) in this year’s elections, as the party has been struggling over the last decade to retain this vital element of the electorate.
Under the banner of “consumptive use” – the idea that an animal will only be conserved if it is hunted or its parts are traded for cash – hunting was defended at the Kasane Conference as a silver bullet for elephant conservation. Speakers and ministers expounded myths that the world – and most African elephant range states – have largely turned their backs on.
Myth 1: Kitso Mokaila, Botswana’s Minister of Environment and Tourism, claimed that Botswana’s elephant population has surged to 160,000 from 55,000 in 1991.
This is the subtext for the claim that there are “too many elephants”. But it is false on both fronts. In 1983, Botswana’s elephant population numbered between 70,000 and 75,000. It had certainly not dropped to 55,000 by 1991. The minister may have done well to consult the latest scientific survey of Northern Botswana, which estimates the population to be roughly 126,114. This is where the majority of elephants reside, so a generous reading of the entire country might be just above 130,000. This figure is not materially different from the 2014 figure. In other words, the population is stable, not growing.
Myth 2: Botswana has exceeded its “carrying capacity” of 54,000 elephants.
This has become an expedient cover under which to justify elephant trophy hunting and even culling. The entire concept of “carrying capacity” is arbitrary. It has no relevance for vast, unfenced wilderness landscapes that adapt and maintain integrity without human intervention.
Ian McDonald has stated that the idea of a carrying capacity of 0.4 elephants per square kilometre derives from an outdated “Hwange Game Reserve management policy that had no scientific basis”. Scholars Phyllis Lee, Keith Lindsay and Katarzyna Nowak write: “Much of the research community, and many managers, accept that ecosystem structure and function are not about elephant numbers but instead about elephant distribution across a landscape and in relation to plant communities.”
A large number of scientists wrote in Ambio that they did not see “any ecological reason to artificially change the number of elephants in Chobe National Park, either through culling or opening new dry season ranges”. What matters is not “carrying capacity” but dispersion and concentration. A high density of elephants in one area may prove to result in some “undesirable” vegetation transformation, which is a good reason for keeping migratory corridors open (no fences). Even where apparent vegetation transformation occurs, however, the ecological benefits of keeping elephants as keystone herbivoresshould never be underestimated. They deposit seeds up to 90km away from areas in which they feed, regenerating vegetation elsewhere and creating corridors for other animals to use.
Myth 3: Hunting will solve the “population explosion problem”.
Ignoring for a second that the population is stable, the truth is that hunting only decimates the big tuskers, reducing genetic diversity. Trophy hunting is typically rationalised on the grounds that it only eliminates old bulls that are “surplus” to herd requirements. Such small-scale elimination is, however, incapable of controlling an “exploding” population, especially given that Botswana’s annual trophy export quota was only ever between 420 and 800 elephants in the decade preceding the moratorium.
Moreover, there is no such thing as “surplus” bull elephants. Dr Michelle Henley writes that: “in the past, bulls over 50 years of age were considered redundant but more recent studies have found that bulls do not reach their sexual prime until they are over 45-years-old”.She also notes that older bulls, because they have protracted musth cycles “often suppress the musth cycles of younger bulls, thereby maintaining social stability and lowering younger bulls’ aggression towards other species such as rhinoceros”. They are thus critical for ensuring functional herd sociology, transferring knowledge and disciplining delinquent behaviour among juvenile males.
Hunting is a fundamentally unsustainable activity, as the incentives are loaded in favour of over-consumption and rule-breaking. As Botswana veteran Mike Gunn puts it: “Anyone who knows anything about hunting cannot honestly claim that a hunter, tracking a trophy bull with his client, upon finding a young bull carrying large tusks, would try to dissuade his client from shooting it.” Hunting quotas tend to be arbitrarily determined by the hunters themselves and over-exploited, which violates the “maximum sustainable yield” principle.
Hunting will therefore never solve a population problem, but it does destroy herd sociology and ensures that big tuskers are being shot out. In this respect, hunters are aiding the poachers – undermining, not supporting, conservation.
Myth 4: Bringing back hunting will solve human and elephant conflict (HEC) and increase benefits to local communities.
The fact is that hunting would only solve HEC if it were able to keep elephants within protected areas and reduce the scarcity of resources, such as water, especially during prolonged drought. Part of the argument is that hunting generates revenue that accrues directly to local communities and thus disincentivises both poaching and the killing of errant crop-raiders.
Ironically, however, hunting is rooted in a colonial anthropology that castigated indigenous people groups as “poachers” and colonialists as “hunter-conservationists”. So, the colonial hunting fraternity established fortress conservation, which displaced and disempowered local communities, but now paints itself as the saviour of conservation and communities.
HEC can be mitigated through bee and chilli solutions, or some combination thereof. Safe migratory corridors can also be established in which human settlement is limited. Ultimately, if communities are empowered to earn and receive benefits from elephants being alive, HEC might become negligible. Hunting is not the answer, as the global hunting industry is in decline and is fundamentally unsustainable in open systems.
While the hunting lobby argues that photography is not viable in “marginal lands”, Mike Gunn reports that the establishment of Thobolo’s Bush Lodge has falsified this hypothesis. Hunting makes elephants skittish and herds them, in large numbers, into small safe areas. To the contrary, photography-based lodges present no threat to elephants, provide water during drought, and therefore allow dispersion that results in reasonable population growth and broad-based revenue for communities that would otherwise be reliant on dwindling hunting income. Instead of allocating previous hunting concessions to photographic, non-consumptive businesses, the Botswana government has been accused of sitting on them despite high levels of interest. Idle land is an invitation to poachers.
The bottom line here is that hunting tends to increase elephant aggression, which exacerbates HEC instead of resolving it.
Myth 5: The hunting moratorium led to increased poaching.
This argument only works on confirmation bias and sequence ignorance. The logic is that poaching has increased in the wake of hunting’s absence, and the latter must, therefore, be the cause of the former. However, poaching only started to increase in 2017, three years after the moratorium was imposed. Poaching is, therefore, more likely to be a function of scarcity elsewhere – south-western Zambia and south-eastern Angola have experienced high poaching rates recently – and density within. It’s no surprise that poachers have moved south. Moreover, poaching may well have been minimised if former hunting concessions had been re-allocated timeously to allow photographic expansion.
In the final analysis, Botswana appears intent on moving against science and cogent argument through lifting Khama’s hunting moratorium. As a physical emblem of President Masisi’s rejection of the prevailing global view, he gifted his fellow heads of state at the Kasane conference with elephant footstools. A UN report released at the same time as the conference showed that human society is in jeopardy from the accelerating decline of the Earth’s natural life-support systems. No less than one-million species are at risk of extinction, in large part because of our unsustainable “consumptive-use” doctrine.
While the rest of the world takes stock of the implications of having destroyed the planet, Botswana has now committed to a policy built on myths, one that may generate short-term revenue and political gain. But it comes at the expense of elephants, ecological integrity and future eco-tourism revenue.
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