Botswana’s Elephant Crisis

A charging bull elephant

The drought persists, summer has arrived and the temperatures soar. Human elephant conflict intensifies daily as rural people, their last remaining domestic livestock and elephants compete for the last remaining natural resource – water!

As the natural water sources on which the local rural people rely dry up and become mud traps for their weakened cattle which in many instances are literally just walking skeletons, survival for both man and beast has created an intolerable situation. So much so that the President of the country has heard the pleas of his people to reopen elephant hunting in the face of international criticism from elephant anti-hunting lobbyist groups who do not understand the reality on the ground. Botswana has a general election in October this year and probably for the first time ever, being home to the world’s largest elephant population has become an important election issue on the president’s re-election campaign.

It’s not only a water issue. Those few villages who have tried to grow crops or a few vegetables spend their nights trying to defend their precious crops from hungry marauding elephants. They can get compensation from the government, but the process is slow, funds are insufficient, and compensations don’t cover “the anxiety and pressure of possible wildlife damage <…> fear of total destruction of a year’s harvest, or labor exerted preventing loss through nights tending fires and making noise.” (DeMotts & Hoon, 2012)  In some instances people are either maimed for life and even killed defending their earthly belongs and crops. More than 30 lives are lost to elephant-human conflict in Botswana each year. 

Why has this situation risen to such epic proportions? To begin with, Botswana boasts of the biggest elephant herds of all African countries. Botswana Government claims the population is 237,000 strong , with carrying capacity estimated at 50,000 (The Montitor, 2018). Most conservationists prefer to use a more conservative estimate of 130,000 (Chase et al, 2016), and question the carrying capacity estimate. The main problem, however, is not numbers alone, but the fact that elephants and humans concentrate at and compete for the same limited areas where there is water. 

This pool of mud, where livestock and even wild animals can get trapped, goes for a decent source of water in some parts of Botswana

Obviously the most significant issue is the drought but in the past when hunting was still permissible in Botswana the concession holders used to pump water for the wild animals and especially the elephants to remain in the areas not suitable for photo tourism and in many cases just about devoid of humans in these semi-arid regions. With the closure of hunting, these watering points ceased to operate forcing the elephants to move to areas where natural water sources could be found and these are the areas where Botswana’s rural population is concentrated. Previously, the elephants avoided these areas as they knew they would be harassed by the locals protecting their crops and homesteads. Those elephants that previously relied on hunter’s providing them with water, now have to run the gauntlet and compete with the rural people for the fast disappearing natural water resources aggravated by the drought.   

In fact, statistical data published in peer-reviewed research articles clearly shows that “the human wildlife conflict has been on an exponential increase since introduction of wildlife hunting prohibition“, with human-elephant conflict in particular doubling since 2014   (Blackie & Sowa, 2019).  The well-documented fact that the closure of safari hunting in 2014 had a negative effect on the economic well-being of local communities (Blackie, 2019) does not improve feelings towards elephants. Local farmers feel disempowered and misunderstood not only by the international community, but by urban Batswana as well; the elephants lost any value to them, and are only a cause of hate.  

Elephant poaching in Botswana is on the rise as well. Is it a coincidence that the surge began immediately after the ban on safari hunting? Maybe it is, but there’s no doubt that hunting concessions will run their anti-poaching operations, and thus reduce illegal harvest, which all experts recognize as one of the two major threats to African wildlife. 

The question that opponents of sustainable use like to sarcastically ask is, “why can’t we just let nature take care of itself, like it did for centuries before?” The answer is, first, that there are now many more people and less wilderness. Second answer is, that’s precisely what sustainable use proposes. 

Historically, Africans never were defenseless against elephants. Ivory trade flourished long before Europeans arrived with their guns, and the ivory didn’t come from animals that died of natural causes. Spears, traps, and poison may not be as efficient as a .458 Lott, but if your objective is to protect your shamba, numbers and humane kill a second and third consideration, they’ll suffice. One elephant killed and butchered near a field sent a clear message to the rest of the herd, while the meat and the ivory compensated for the damage to the crops. This is how Africans and elephants coexisted for centuries, both in pre-colonial and early colonial times. Now the Africans don’t have this option, because affluent and well-meaning white people, from the comfort of their London, DC, Parisian, etc., residences, decided that not killing any elephants is the primary goal.

A grim fact to ponder over is that even with safari hunting ban and in the absence of poaching, elephants still die. Often, they die a cruel death. As elephant herds have to make longer and longer daily journeys in search of water, tiny elephant calves can’t keep up with their mothers. They are left behind in the bush, to be torn alive by lions and hyenas. How can that be better than living to an advanced age and dying instantly from a brain shot – we fail to see. But what if killing a few mature individuals can actually benefit not only the rural communities, but both the elephant herds and the rural Batswana? 

A charging bull elephant
Mature bull elephants, who are mostly responsible for crop depredations, can be extremely dangerous

Scientists and African farmers alike notice that most crop depredations are made by mature bull elephants, while cows and calves are both easier to scare and more likely to migrate away from farmed areas. (DeMotts & Hoon, 2012) Many Batswana, in addition, point out that elephants “used to have a fear of humans, but no longer do.” Trophy hunting targets mature bulls, and being hunted obviously will make them associate humans with danger. Thus, trophy hunting will have a focused impact on the part of the population that is most likely to cause problems, without significant impact on overall elephant numbers, or increased human pressure on female/calf herds. 

The Batswana don’t exactly need “great white hunters” to handle their elephants. But the communities would benefit so much more from the money that Europeans and Americans are willing to pay for the privilege than from just killing an elephant. In addition, safari operators will drill for water to distract elephants from competing with villagers, maintain anti-poaching patrols, and contribute to community development in thousands of other ways, including road construction – just like they did before the ban.   

The only arguments that opponents of trophy hunting can counter it with is the oft-quoted assertion that ‘only 3% of hunting revenues reach local communities’. But this statement has been refuted (CIC 2019); besides, even if it were true, it only means that better ways of profit sharing with local communities must be used. As long as hunting does not dent populations – and even the most ardent opponents of trophy hunting in Botswana admit it won’t – who has the right to tell the Batswana what to do? 

In other words, people who are concerned about elephant welfare in Botswana should work not towards stopping trophy hunting, but towards making sure that trophy hunting is conducted in a way that most efficiently resolves the human-elephant conflict. 

Botswana has taken a decision to reopen elephant hunting and needs urgent action to be taken by hunters in the specific areas where the human wildlife conflict is greatest. This call to action will be taken before the end of this year with the first elephant hunts being auctioned to local citizens. International trophy hunting is set to resume in 2020, and in at this stage, international hunters should be extremely cautious with advertisements for elephant hunting in Botswana. Here is what the official press release says on the subject:

The public is advised to be cautious of online advertisements, which purport to be marketing elephant hunts in Botswana. These adverts make reference to opportunities for foreign hunters to hunt “non- exportable” elephants in Botswana. Under no circumstances will non-citizens be allowed to hunt elephants on quota for citizens. A Department of Wildlife and National Parks officer will escort each elephant hunt. Hunters will be required to produce valid identity documentation prior to embarking on the hunt.” 

Click for full text of the press release rejects and condemns all forms of illegal hunting, and will not commence to advertise elephant hunting in Botswana until all the legalities have been formalised between the Botswana Conservation authorities and registered outfitters.  

Photo (c) Johan During 

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