Picture: 123RF/CHRIS FOURIE
Picture: 123RF/CHRIS FOURIE

When Botswana, home to about one-third of the world’s African elephants, lifted its hunting ban in May, leaders knew they were courting controversy. The government even hired a public relations firm specialising in Hollywood celebrities to spin public opinion to its side.

For President Mokgweetsi Masisi, the need to end the ban was obvious. Rural farmers have borne the brunt of the near-tripling of the elephant population since 1991, to 130,000. As many as 50 Botswanans have been killed by elephants since the ban was implemented in 2014 and hundreds of reports of property damage have been filed. Botswana is also facing in October its most competitive election since independence in 1966 and Masisi needs rural support.

That didn’t stop the backlash. Masisi was pilloried by everyone from Ellen DeGeneres to his own predecessor. “Once again, elephants are being used as political scapegoats, but at a huge cost,” said Jason Bell, vice-president conservation and animal rescue at the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Cape Town.

It’s easy for someone sitting behind their computer in the US who’s never been to a local community in Botswana to get all upset about it
Niki Rust, research associate at the University of Newcastle

Botswana hasn’t changed its position, but public relations firm 42 West, whose star-studded client list includes Nicole Kidman, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep and Will Smith, pulled out of the contract, the Hollywood trade press reported. Allan Mayer, responsible for the account, didn’t respond to a message left at his office.

“It’s somewhat of a clash of cultures,” said Niki Rust, a research associate and wildlife management expert at the University of Newcastle. “It’s easy for someone sitting behind their computer in the US who’s never been to a local community in Botswana to get all upset about it.”

One purpose of ending the prohibition is to raise revenue through fees of thousands of dollars on trophy hunters, some of which can be channelled via licences to the communities that live side by side with the animals, the government says. Kills will be limited to 400 a year. While elephants are endangered across much of Africa, they are abundant in Botswana, SA, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia, all of which allow hunting.

Marauding elephants are a regular threat to villagers in northern Botswana, where most of its elephants dwell.

“A lot of people are being killed by these animals, even the environment itself is being eroded by elephants,” said Kosta Markus, a ruling party MP from the north near the elephant-rich Okavango Delta, who proposed the legislation ending the curbs. “Botswana is a democratic state that should look after its people. Otherwise there should be a zoo in Botswana and no people.”

Former president Ian Khama said the ban, promulgated while he was in office, “was a very necessary and responsible thing to do as a government”. He said it was “very complementary to our conservation ethos. Why they’ve decided to change as far as I am concerned is more to do with the fact that’s it an election year than anything else.”

Masisi posted a message on Twitter to justify the decision and to dismiss early proposals, made in countrywide hearings, that elephants be culled en masse and made into pet food. On June 2 he expressed horror that a young Botswanan had been killed by an elephant.

Prior to the hunting ban, the activity was a key source of income for remote areas of Botswana that weren’t favoured by photographic safari operators. Its imposition cost at least 600 to 800 jobs, said Debbie Peake, a spokesperson for the Botswana Wildlife Producers Association, which represents ranchers who breed wildlife for meat and hunting.

“The hunting industry and the number of elephants that will be taken will not reduce the problem, it will improve the tolerance as communities get some revenue,” she said. “The communities that live where conflict with elephants is highest are being unfairly marginalised because of western conservation ideology.”
Bloomberg