Dorine Reinstein
Dorine Reinstein

Much to the dismay of conservationists and celebrities around the world, Botswana last month decided to lift its ban on elephant hunting. This means that after a five-year prohibition, elephant hunting will be able to resume in the southern African nation.

Comedian and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres responded to the lifting of a ban on elephant hunting in Botswana by encouraging the country's president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, to "be kind to elephants." DeGeneres, who visited an elephant sanctuary last year, posted about the decision by president Masisi on social media, including an ominous tweet that warned, "We're watching."

Actress Kristin Davis alerted Botswana on social media to "the millions of us who will not be spending our tourism money in Botswana if you allow elephants to be hunted there."

Tour operators in Africa also reacted with shock. Founding Partner, Invent Africa Safaris and environmental journalist Ian Michler called the lifting of the ban on elephant hunting "nonsensical" and a "regressive move that damages a highly regarded conservation and ecotourism reputation the country has built up over the last two decades."

Derek Joubert, Great Plains Conservation, said in an open letter and petition: "The Botswana [low-impact tourism] model is such a huge success that it is envied and being replicated in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, and it is soon to start in Gabon, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and other countries. To abandon this impressive conservation success for the archaic management by gun will not only be disastrous for the wildlife and tourism of Botswana, but these negative effects will also feed onto the communities who live with wildlife. In no hunting country in the world have remote villages been lifted out of poverty thanks to trophy hunting."

Under the new rules, hunting will be allowed on a small, strictly controlled and ethical basis, according to the government, with fewer than 400 elephant licenses granted annually. Priority will be granted to Community Based Organizations and Trusts, with over 50% of hunting quotas to be assigned to these groups. Hunting will only be reinstated in designated Concession Hunting Areas.

The reason the government has cited for lifting the hunting ban is the "human-wildlife" conflict. Botswana's environment ministry said in a statement that a cabinet committee review had found that "the number and high levels of human-elephant conflict and the consequent impact on livelihoods was increasing."

"The general consensus from those consulted was that the hunting ban should be lifted," the statement read, with the government promising that hunting would be reintroduced "in an orderly and ethical manner."

According to Michler however, trophy hunting is not an effective or sustainable way to manage protected areas and species in Africa. He said: "We know that elephants are under threat in almost every range in Africa, and despite the healthy numbers, including Botswana. Allowing hunters to go after the gene pool simply adds to the pressure on the species."

Singita COO Mark Witney agreed that lifting the hunting ban is unlikely to help resolve the human-wildlife conflict situation, unless the cull is on such a scale that numbers are reduced dramatically. He said: "Just one lion can kill numerous livestock, just one elephant can reduce a small farmer's maize crop to stubble. So as man encroaches on these areas there will be conflict as long as there is game."

However, Witney also pointed out that the situation in Botswana is a complex one and definitely not black and white.

"On a broad philosophical level it is just tragic that burgeoning human populations have created a situation where wildlife is being forced into ever smaller areas. Migration routes are being cut off and where as recently as 100 years ago, due to the large areas they roamed, species like elephant moved from areas of drought where the food source had become scarce to more productive areas and their numbers were naturally regulated. Now they are confined, and as their numbers increase and the impact of too many elephants becomes an issue we call it an 'elephant problem,' or when lion kill livestock we call in the 'Problem Animal Control Unit' to kill the lion. Homo sapiens is the problem animal, and it is us who are overpopulated, not wild animals."

So what is the solution? "There is no easy answer," said Witney. "The fact is that African elephants are under enormous threat from ivory poaching and the continent's population is shrinking, but areas that do protect them are becoming overpopulated. Moving them to other areas is expensive and there are very few places that are safe for elephant and can take more."

According to Witney, the Botswana problematic should ultimately come down to a worldwide issue. He said: "The developed world needs to address poverty in Africa so that wild areas and the game on them does not need to compete with development and livelihoods. But that is just a dream ..."

Although AndBeyond does not promote hunting activities of any sort, its CEO, Joss Kent, said the company recognizes that the world it operates in is a complex one and that balancing the needs of wildlife and people is difficult in any country.

"What has become evident to us through the research presented by the government of Botswana is that the communities that surround that country's conservation areas do not feel as though they are benefitting from those wildlife areas," Kent said. "We believe that this in itself is the biggest threat to conservation, far greater than even poaching in the long term. It is imperative that something be done to change this perception and we believe that this is what the government of Botswana is trying to address."

He agreed with Witney that there are frequently no black-and-white answers to the issues safari specialists face in the field. "We believe in honoring the democratic government systems in the countries where we operate and work within the framework that they set," he said.

However, while conservationists and celebrities are debating the hunting ban, the tourism industry in Botswana is already starting to feel the impact.

Sean Kritzinger, executive chairman of Giltedge Africa, explained that lifting the elephant ban will initially harm Botswana's tourism industry. He said: "We've had two clients raise concerns this week, and one client has canceled the Botswana portion of their trip."

Kritzinger added that any decision taken by a government that ultimately harms the livelihood of local people who are actively engaged in tourism will be counterproductive in the long-term.

"Botswana was once the golden country for tourism. We have been scorned by the world as a result of the lifting of the ban, with protests today in Las Vegas, etc., and bookings have been canceled," Joubert said. "A dip in tourism by just 5% is damaging, and many companies have seen a 10%-13% dip already. This is going to cost jobs and harm the communities evermore."

"I think it will definitely have an impact on tourism," Witney added. "Conservationists can debate these issues as much as they like, but the majority of tourists are opposed to hunting, and the media coverage of this decision to reintroduce hunting will put them off. One might counter-argue that, other than Kenya, no other African country has a ban on hunting, and they still have thriving tourism industries. But Botswana, having imposed a hunting ban is now reverting to hunting, a move that many, rightly or wrongly, will see as a regression."

Kent urged that a tourism boycott is not the answer. "It is our belief that the best way to counter this recent development is to create even more tourism to Botswana, this ensuring that more benefit flows to the people and the wildlife of the country in this way than through hunting. We urge our guests to continue to travel to Botswana, increasing the flow of money from tourism and thus decreasing the pressure being placed on both wildlife and communities."

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