Jumbo vote scramble

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Elephant baby and family. Pictures: Francis-Garrard
Louise de Waal

Neither culling, hunting, nor forceful blocking of migration routes is a permanent solution to Human Elephant Conflict (HEC), as these reactive measures do not promote the peaceful coexistence between people and elephants, argues Louise de Waal

President Mokgweetsi Masisi of Botswana said “elephants bleed [the] government coffers”, as “Botswana is indirectly subsidising and financing Botswana’s elephant population”.

This statement comes days after the government released their Hunting Ban Social Dialogue Report on elephant management, proposing lifting of the trophy hunting ban, regular elephant culling, elephant meat canning for pet food, and the closure of some wildlife migratory routes.

The heated media debate that followed has turned into a political feud over the sovereignty to practice wildlife management without meddling from the West. It is being used by the government as an election campaign.

President Mokgweetsi Masisi, of Botswana, addressing the general debate of the General Assembly’s 70th session in 2015. UN Photo/Loey Felipe

Last year during the community stakeholders’ consultation process, the Botswana Government cited an inflated estimate of 237,000 elephants, but since the handing over of the Social Dialogue Report, a more accurate number of 130,000 elephants is now being used by the government and associated media.

Why the difference in elephant population numbers? It’s all about the importance of rural votes for the ruling Botswana Democratic Party in the national elections later this year. In order to win those vital rural votes, the implementation of culling and hunting has been proposed as a solution to Human Elephant Conflict (HEC).

Konstantinos Markus (Maun East MP) claims “communities have become very hostile and negative towards wildlife”. Thus, a higher and ever-increasing elephant number supports the HEC argument.

“Reintroducing trophy hunting and elephant culling will not stop HEC or poaching”, says Mary Rice, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency. “Nor will introducing a legal trade of ivory and other elephant products. This flies in the face of Botswana’s commitments as a founding member of the Elephant Protection Initiative.”

A carrying capacity of 54,000 elephants is widely quoted to justify the government’s argument, along with claims from the hunting fraternity that Botswana’s elephant population is 10-20 times larger than the country’s actual carrying capacity, creating major threats to its wildlife conservation.

The origin of the carrying capacity quoted by the Botswana government and the pro-hunting lobby is unclear. However, “the concept of a carrying capacity for elephants is a relic from commercial livestock farming that has no meaning in the management of Africa’s highly variable savanna ecosystems”, says Keith Lindsay, conservation biologist working with the Amboseli Trust for Elephants.

“Restricting wildlife movement along migration corridors can only push elephants further towards villages, increasing HEC. Fences will kill many other wild animals in the process. A more effective and humane solution would be a well-resourced programme of public education and crop protection in agricultural areas, along with the long-awaited opening up of safe corridors through the Caprivi into Zambia, and removal of artificial waterpoints.”

This has still not been implemented despite the tens of millions of Euros poured into the project by the German Development Bank.

Botswana’s tourism industry threatened

Botswana’s reputation as a prime photographic tourism destination will come under threat, if the Social Dialogue Report is accepted by the Masisi government. Turning one of Africa’s iconic species into canned pet food has created international condemnation and the proposals have already been renamed as “Botswana’s Blood Law” by conservation spokesperson and lodge owner Dereck Joubert.

Tourism in Botswana. Picture: Klaus Tiedge

Tourism in Botswana contributed US$687.5 million directly to its economy, a total of 11.5% to its GDP and 76,000 jobs (7.6%) to the total employment in 2017, with an enormous potential for further growth, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Trophy hunting in comparison only generated USD 20 million and 1,000 jobs in 2014 and is considered a declining sector across Africa.

Botswana’s elephant management proposals are not going unnoticed amongst potential international visitors and calls for boycotting Botswana as a tourism destination have been voiced.

A blanket boycott will undo the good tourism has done for people and conservation in Botswana. However, there is a worldwide trend among travellers to make more ethical choices when booking holidays, especially in terms of their impact on people, animals and the environment.

Clare Doolan, sales and product manager for Safari Destinations, says: “Many international tour operators expressed concern at ITB Berlin that they expect visitor numbers to Botswana to decline, if the recently proposed elephant management techniques are introduced”.

“We believe more creative solutions need to be found for communities impacted by HEC, by giving them access to tourism revenue through diversification of the tourism product and increasing community participation. “We would love the opportunity to work with government towards this goal, while strengthening Botswana’s standing as a leader in conservation.”

There are unconfirmed reports that President Masisi is planning to expand his consultation process to involve the tourism industry and communities benefitting from this sector in the debate.

The Hospitality and Tourism Association of Botswana (HATAB) recently released a statement to their members indicating that Minister Mokaila (Environment, Natural Resources and Tourism) would discuss  “the findings and recommendations suggested [in the report] with relevant stakeholders, including HATAB”.

However, in my view, it reeks of political chicanery when the second largest foreign exchange earner after diamond mining is not consulted prior to the submission of the Hunting Ban Social Dialogue Report. – Conservation Action Trust