Fury as Botswana returns to elephant hunting

Supply and demand: Big tour operators need to direct more of their earnings towards local communities.

Should rich westerners condemn Botswana for returning to elephant hunting? The gentle giants are a natural wonder. But they are also destroying the lives and crops of local farmers.

“I hate elephants,” said Lumba Nderiki, a farmer well into her 80s, as she strolled through her modest and barren field in the Chobe enclave, a strip of mostly farmland between the river and national park of the same name. “Two simple reasons: They have widowed me, and they have left me without a harvest.”

Nderiki and her husband had been married 65 years before he was killed by an elephant in 2014. Like nearly everyone else in this cluster of villages, it has been years since her fields weren’t trampled and eaten up by what she calls “the giants”. She used to grow more than 100 bags of sorghum in a season. Last harvest, she salvaged three.

These sentences, from a Washington Post article last week, sum up the problem.

The farmers of Botswana have turned against elephants.

If there were anywhere elephants could become a populist issue, it is Botswana which has a human population of just over two million and an elephant population of about 130,000.

The country’s president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, was appointed last year and is up for his first election this October. He has forcefully taken the farmers’ side, turning elephants into a major campaign issue.

Three weeks ago, he lifted a ban on trophy hunting of elephants put in place by his predecessor.

He has given stools made of elephant feet to visiting heads of state. And his government floated the possibility of culling and processing elephant meat as pet food.

Growing resentment towards the animals among farmers around Botswana is upending the country’s politics, and prompting the reversal of policies that turned tourism into its second-biggest earner after diamonds.

The row has also spilled into a larger debate over race in a country where white foreigners and the descendants of colonialists control much of the conservation and tourism sectors, while many who live outside the national parks eke out a living on government subsidies.

“Horrific beyond imagination” is the reaction of Paula Kahumba, CEO of Wildlife Direct in Kenya. She described hunting as “an archaic approach” to dealing with conflicts between animals and people.

But many disagree.

“Poor rural Africans are becoming more resentful of being told how to manage their wildlife by Western do-gooders,” says Graham Boynton, founder of Community Conservation Fund Africa. “It’s easy for Westerners to get sentimental about Africa’s wildlife. Try living in a remote village in Botswana where, increasingly, elephants trample your crops and smash your huts.

“African wildlife conservation is a complicated business that requires careful, considered examination, and simple, thoughtless sloganeering should be avoided at all times.”

Shades of grey?

Elephants are beautiful, loving creatures that have been mistreated and slaughtered for centuries, both for meat and for ivory. There is no excuse for anything but a complete ban on hunting. And there are many ways of controlling herds in the wild to maintain good relations between elephants and humans. This is the view at one extreme.

On the other hand, many sensible people argue that this is foolish. Elephants are also wild animals. They can be destructive and dangerous too. Like it or not, nature achieves a balance through culling and hunting. Local people have to live with this. Why should rich tourists decide how an African country runs itself?

You Decide

  1. Are elephants more important than insects?
  2. Is conservation often more sentimental than scientific?

Activities

  1. Research how much an adult elephant eats during an average lifetime. Work out how many times its total food needs would fill your classroom.
  2. “All hunting is immoral.” Imagine you had to make the argument. Prepare a list of your points. Present them to the class and see how many people you can persuade to agree with you.

Some People Say...

“They say an elephant never forgets. What they don’t tell you is you never forget an elephant.”

Bill Murray, actor

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Botswana has the largest elephant population in Africa. Experts estimate the number has tripled over the last 30 years to as many as 160,000. There are about 415,000 African elephants in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund, spread over 37 nations. Their population is considered “vulnerable”, down from between three to five million in the last century, largely because of unregulated hunting.
What do we not know?
Whether local experts are correct when they say that by sacrificing 700 elephants per year, Botswana is likely to save more. The argument is that this would be enough to fund far better conditions for the surviving elephants — and more support for local communities.

Word Watch

Botswana
Botswana, one of Africa’s most stable countries, is the continent’s longest continuous multi-party democracy. It is relatively free of corruption and has a good human rights record.
Diamonds.
Botswana is the world’s largest producer of diamonds and the trade has transformed it into a middle-income nation.
Wildlife Direct in Kenya
A Kenya-US registered charitable organisation founded and chaired by African conservationist Richard Leakey, who is credited with putting an end to the elephant slaughter in Kenya in the 1980s.
Community Conservation Fund Africa
This is a grant-giving foundation, registered in South Africa, that combines the merger of three international wildlife conservation organisations (Wilderness Foundation Africa, Tusk Trust and African Parks) as its founding members.