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OPINION: Botswana’s Hunting Ban Deserves Better from the New York Times


A recent article in the New York Times casts Botswana’s hunting ban, enacted just under two years ago, as the disastrous move of a nation acting under the spell of Western animal rights activism.

The author, Norimitsu Onishi, who is the paper’s bureau chief for southern Africa, blames the ban for swelling the number of dangerous animals that terrorize villagers in Sankuyo, where his story is set. And he claims that Sankuyo’s land is “peripheral,” too remote for photo tourism to make up for the income the village lost when trophy hunting ceased.

Both of these conclusions are dubious at best.

Has the Ban Worsened Human-Wildlife Conflict?

Onishi writes that since the ban, “growing numbers” of lions and elephants are terrorizing villagers in Sankuyo, snatching livestock and raiding crops.


Botswana has had a moratorium on lion hunting for most of the past 13 years. So it’s difficult to see how this more general ban, not yet two years old, could have changed the population dynamics of Botswana’s lions.


A lion in the Okavango Delta area of Botswana. Photograph by Jodi Cobb/National Geographic Creative.
A lion in the Okavango Delta area of Botswana. Photograph by Jodi Cobb/National Geographic Creative.

Onishi implies that the reason lions “are increasingly entering villages looking for livestock,” is that they can no longer “feast on the meat of elephants left behind by hunters.”

Costas Christ, Editor at Large for National Geographic Traveler, was formerly a senior director at Conservation International. He lived and worked in Africa for 14 years and was in Botswana last month when Onishi’s article was published.

In an email, Christ said that the situation is exactly the opposite. “Villagers who know Sankuyo very well” explained “that during the years of legal hunting, when Sankuyo was killing elephants and other big game for trophy sport, the leftover carcasses were dumped on the outskirts of the village, attracting predators such as lions and leopards.

“One villager told me you could often smell the dead carcasses when approaching Sankuyo. It was actually the result of hunting itself—not the ban—that brought predators to the village in search of food.”

I haven’t found any evidence that the hunting ban has led to more elephants in Botswana, either, or that it has increased incidents of crop-raiding.

Elephant in Botswana. Photograph by Chris/Johns/National Geographic Creative.
An elephant in Botswana. Photograph by Chris/Johns/National Geographic Creative.

On the contrary, research suggests that years of persecution at the hands of humans has led to a rise in crop-raiding and trampling. And experts say that removing older bulls—the animals targeted by trophy hunters—from elephant society leads to destructive behavior by gangs of “rogue” younger males.

Is Sankuyo’s Land “Marginal”?

There is a sensible argument to be made that allowing licensed hunting on marginal land that isn’t scenic enough for sightseeing can provide an economic incentive for locals to preserve that land as wildlife habitat rather than turn it over to farming or grazing.

Onishi calls the village of Sankuyo “peripheral,” and characterizes its land as an area that would only appeal to trophy hunters.

Is it?

If you look up “Sankuyo, Botswana” on Google Maps, you’ll see that it’s just to the east of the vast Okavango Delta that spreads out into the Kalahari Desert. Famed for its pristine beauty and rich concentrations of wildlife, the Okavango is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a premier destination for well-heeled tourists.

The Sankuyo Tshwaragano Management Trust manages two land concessions, NG 33 and NG 34, both right next to this extraordinary place.

Just to be sure, I asked Colin Bell, coauthor of a guide to Africa’s premier photo safari destinations and one of the original founders of Botswana-based Wilderness Safaris, whether he would consider Sankuyo’s land marginal.

“You have to go much further away into the Kalahari proper to get to marginal,” Bell told me over the phone.

“Photographic companies would want to be there in a heartbeat. If the Sankuyo community came to me and said, ‘Right, would you like to take this area over for the next 20 years?’ I would sign on the dotted line without even going to see what the place is like.”

Elephants roam the plains of Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana. The country is a leading destination for wildlife photography. Photograph by Chris Johns/National Geographic Creative.
Elephants roam the plains of Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana. The country is a leading destination for wildlife photography. Photograph by Chris Johns/National Geographic Creative.

Based on Onishi’s article, you wouldn’t think that any photo tourism takes place on Sankuyo’s land, but in fact there’s a lodge, a tent camp, and a “cultural village.” Photos posted on the Sankuyo Tshwaragano Management Trust’s Facebook page show happy sightseers enjoying the scenery and wildlife spotting.

So why haven’t more tour operators come in to replace the income Sankuyo has lost from hunting?

I haven’t yet been able to get an answer from the Sankuyo Tshwaragano Management Trust, but it may be that land leases are still in the hands of hunting operators who haven’t converted to photo tourism.

Reasonable Reasons for a Hunting Ban

Onishi doesn’t offer any reasons why Botswana’s government might have enacted the hunting ban. He notes only that President Seretse Khama Ian Khama is “a staunch defender of animal rights,” as if that rules out any possibility that the government—rated as the least corrupt in sub-Saharan Africa by Transparency International—had a practical motive.

What Onishi neglects to mention is that the ban is temporary and doesn’t apply to the fenced game ranches that, according to the Botswana Wildlife Producers Association’s Game Ranching Handbook, cover about one percent of the country’s wildlife areas.

Also, the president has a stake in Wilderness Safaris, one of Botswana’s premier photo tourism outfits. (Colin Bell sold his shares in the company in 2005.)

So it seems that something more is at play here than mindless capitulation to the demands of outraged vegans in faraway lands.

When the moratorium went into effect, Botswana’s Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism cited a 2012 aerial survey and an analysis of population trends showing significant declines in a number of hoofed species commonly taken as trophies.

Conservation biologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer Steve Boyes, who has worked extensively in the Okavango, wrote that the reason for Botswana’s ban was “corruption fueling unsustainable hunting and poaching that threatens species survival.”

Hunting’s Millions vs. Photo Tourism’s Billions

Onishi never even mentions how little income trophy hunting generates when compared to photo tourism.

Granted, data are scarce. A 2006 report is the only published estimate of sub-Saharan Africa’s trophy hunting revenue. Based on 2001 communications with the Botswana Wildlife Management Association, the report’s authors calculated that Botswana’s hunting industry generated U.S. $20 million per year and employed about 1,000 people.

By contrast, the World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that photo tourism generates nearly $1.5 billion dollars annually and contributes, directly and indirectly, 69,500 jobs—10 percent of Botswana’s total employment.

Elephants Under Siege

Perhaps the hunting suspension is also intended as a bulwark against international ivory poaching gangs, who will surely find the continent’s biggest elephant population an ever more tempting target as herds disappear elsewhere. (Trophy hunting has been implicated as a smokescreen for poaching.)

But Onishi says elephant numbers are increasing across the continent, citing the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List classification for the species, which hasn’t been updated since 2008—before the current wave of ivory poaching really took off.

Anyone who hasn’t been living in a cave for the last several years knows that Africa’s elephants are in severe decline throughout most of their range. So why doesn’t the Timess southern Africa bureau chief?

Is Trophy Hunting a Successful Conservation Strategy?

Onishi calls trophy hunting the “cornerstone of conservation” in southern Africa, as though the merits of trophy hunting as a conservation strategy are irrefutable. That just isn’t true.

A 2009 analysis by Craig Packer, one of the world’s foremost lion researchers and a one-time supporter of trophy hunting as a conservation measure, showed that harvests (“offtakes”) of lions in Botswana peaked in the early 1990s, then crashed and never recovered.

In his recent book, Lions in the Balance, Packer elaborates: “In every African country that had ever allowed large-scale offtakes of lions, the pattern was the same. A clear peak, followed by precipitous decline, despite the fact that the demand for the lion trophies had continued to grow.”

In other words, trophy hunting’s record of conserving lions is far from spotless. Other studies show that if trophy hunting isn’t vigilantly managed with strictly enforced quotas and age limitations, it can severely damage wildlife populations.

(After many years of research, Packer was expelled from Tanzania for his efforts to expose corruption in the hunting industry. In his place, a new researcher, funded by the hunting industry, is embarking upon a survey of the lion population in Tanzania, which will presumably be used to determine future quotas.)

Costas Christ once supported trophy hunting as a means of conservation, writing that he had worked “on the former and once celebrated (but ultimately failed) CAMPFIRE project in southern Africa with hope that it could prove to be a model of sustainable trophy hunting.”

But, he continued, “I have yet to find more than a one-off random example of trophy hunting viable as either a conservation strategy or revenue stream that can compete on any level with the economic benefits of non-hunting wildlife tourism.”

Conservation in Africa Deserves Better Reporting

The Dallas Safari Club, a powerful hunting lobby that bills itself as a conservation organization and was admitted to the International Union for Conservation of Nature in May, hails Onishi’s story as “another great editorial from the New York Times.”

Except that Onishi’s article isn’t an editorial.

It’s a reported feature in the world news section by—have I mentioned this?—the New York Times’s bureau chief for all of southern Africa, an area larger than Western Europe and encompassing at least five countries.

Anyone trying to grapple with the complex problem of conservation in Africa is opposed by a sea of misinformation. It’s disheartening that the Times, usually a bastion of rigorous journalism, is contributing to the confusion rather than elucidating real solutions.

Maraya Cornell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @MarayaCornell.


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