Botswana Considers Changes to Elephant Protections

A herd of elephants swims in Botswana. ( Wikimedia Commons)

A herd of elephants swims in Botswana. (Wikimedia Commons)

Botswana is considering overturning a ban on big game hunting following recommendations from a report released on February 21. The same report, produced by Botswanan cabinet ministers, also endorsed several other measures, including the introduction of “regular but limited elephant culling” and “elephant meat canning” for pet food. President Mokgweetsi Masisi, who set up the ministerial subcommittee to review the legislation in June 2018, welcomed the report’s findings but promised that nothing would be implemented without further parliamentary consultation.  

Numbering at least 130,000, Botswana’s elephant population is the world’s largest and has been under strict protection since January 2014, when former President Ian Khama enacted an outright hunting ban. The prohibition, lauded by conservationists, was part of an effort to combat the reported decline of several animal species in Botswana.

However, critics of the ban argue that the elephant population is expanding beyond manageable size and must be controlled to avoid increasing conflict with their human neighbors. While elephants are natural herbivores, they can cause great damage when they encroach onto agricultural land, devouring and scattering crops, devastating potential profits, and even killing people.

Moreover, a study conducted by a researcher at the University of Botswana found that inhabitants in previous hunting areas had been financially and nutritionally affected by the reduced availability of meat as a protein source and the loss of revenue streams associated with the hunting industry. One Member of Parliament, Konstantino Markus, blamed growing elephant numbers for “impoverish[ing] communities” in rural Botswana.

Although these concerns have been echoed by President Masisi’s Botswana Democratic Party, which has been at the forefront of opposition to the ban since their election victory last spring, they are far from beyond dispute. Commentators like Mike Chase, founder of the Elephants Without Borders conservation charity, dismissed allegations that rural communities needed hunting, citing the “impressive growth of the wider ecotourism industry” to take its place. In addition, there are no scientific surveys to support the growth in numbers reported anecdotally by rural Botswanans, although the range of their movement is thought to have increased, and some contradictory reports even suggest relative decline.

The extent of disagreement is partly due to the difficulties in tracking herds whose migration patterns frequently cross national boundaries. Different figures are supported by proponents of hunting and those who fear an international backlash against the ban reversal could damage Botswana’s flourishing tourism industry, its largest source of foreign income besides diamond mining.

Amid such ambiguous science, Masisi’s stark reversal of Khama’s wildlife and conservation policy is indicative of the growing political divergence between the former President-Vice President pair. Masisi has reversed a number of policies dating to the Khama administration, and one of Khama’s associates is due to challenge Masisi at the next Botswana Democratic Party conference in July.