Botswana's elephant dilemma is a case of conservation success colliding with human-wildlife conflict - Hindustan Times

Botswana's elephant dilemma is a case of conservation success colliding with human-wildlife conflict

Apr 08, 2024 11:09 PM IST

Trophy-hunting may not be the best way to preserve the elephants that roam the African savannah at all— and here's how ecological balance can still be preserved

In Botswana, a land of rich wildlife and ecological reserves, the government faces a daunting challenge: managing the world's largest population of African elephants.

An elephant near the Nxaraga village on the outskirts of Maun, Botswana, Sept. 28, 2019.(AFP) PREMIUM
An elephant near the Nxaraga village on the outskirts of Maun, Botswana, Sept. 28, 2019.(AFP)

President Mokgweetsi Masisi's recent proposition to send 20,000 elephants to Germany has thrust this issue into the international spotlight and ignited a fiery debate on wildlife conservation, human-wildlife coexistence, and the ethical implications of trophy hunting​.

Germany’s environment ministry had proposed banning imports of hunting trophies, but the proposal was not accepted by the Parliament. Instead, the country will reduce overall imports of hunting trophies of protected species.

“It is very easy to sit in Berlin and have an opinion about our affairs in Botswana. We are paying the price for preserving these animals for the world,” Masisi told the German tabloid Bild, according to the Washington Post.

Let’s unpack that.

At the heart of this debate is the question of how best to balance the needs of human populations with the conservation of these majestic creatures. Botswana is estimated to be home to over 130,000 elephants. This burgeoning population seems to profile the country's conservation efforts but also poses significant challenges of human-wildlife conflict including crop damage, property destruction, and threats to human life​.

Trophy hunting, a practice that has long divided opinions, emerges as a central theme as wildlife experts call the Botswana President’s statement a political one, devoid of any ecological merit. “Germany has no suitable habitat,” said an international ecologist refusing to delve further into the issue.

“Trophy hunting is contentious. It typically involves paying for and pursuing a specific wild animal, often a large or iconic species like elephants, with the goal of killing them to obtain a trophy, such as the animal’s tusks, heads, or hide," explains Dr Neil D'Cruze, head of wildlife research at World Animal Protection. D'Cruze said there is widespread public opposition to trophy hunting, describing it as a “cruel bloodsport” that inflicts prolonged and undue animal suffering​.

However, conservation pragmatists argue that the size of the elephant population in Botswana, (estimates range from 200,000 to 130,000, as highlighted by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Botswana) is more than what the ecosystem can sustain. Historically, Botswana has been celebrated for its conservation efforts, which have allowed the elephant population to thrive. However, this success has brought its own set of challenges, including increased human-elephant conflicts and debates over the carrying capacity of the land.

In response to these challenges, the Botswana government lifted a ban on trophy hunting in 2019, which was in place since 2014. “This decision was influenced by a committee comprising local authorities, affected communities, conservationists, and tourism organisations, which recommended lifting the ban as a means to manage the elephant population more effectively. The government’s decision was framed as an effort to reduce human-elephant conflicts and manage the elephant population sustainably, although it sparked significant controversy and debate among conservationists, locals, and international observers," said Shubhobroto Ghosh, wildlife campaign manager at World Animal Protection, India.

“Ultimately, these discussions often boil down to a single issue: popular public opinion is against trophy hunting, but how could the financial revenue that it generates be replaced?” D’Cruze asked.

Botswana argues that it serves as an essential tool for population control and generates significant revenue for conservation efforts and local communities. The Botswana government contends that the practice has contributed to the country's conservation success, enabling the management of elephant populations and supporting rural livelihoods through revenue from hunting quotas allocated to community-based organisations (CBOs)​. This was communicated in a press release in 2022 by then director of the department of Wildlife and National Parks, Dr Kabelo J. Senyatso, in response to an international story alleging the failure of this practice (trophy hunting).

A set of questions has been shared with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Government of Botswana. This story will be updated based on the responses.

The press release clarified the reasons for resuming hunting in Botswana. “The decision… was driven by increased human-elephant conflicts causing loss of life and negative impacts on community livelihoods due to lost hunting income. Addressing these challenges, the Botswana Elephant Management and Action Plan 2021–2026 was developed to protect the elephant population while identifying benefits for communities through sustainable elephant use. Despite concerns, Botswana's CITES-approved hunting quota—deemed non-catastrophic for its large elephant population—aims to support rural livelihoods (…) by developing hunting value chains to create jobs and business opportunities by processing hunting by-products, enhancing local employment, and promoting wildlife conservation.”

D'Cruze, however, questions if trophy hunting is indeed indispensable for conservation and community development. Research in South Africa has provided new insights, along with clear evidence that there are other non-consumptive, wildlife-friendly alternatives. World Animal Protection commissioned research into public attitudes towards trophy hunting in South Africa, surveying 10,900 people from around the world including India, which revealed strong opposition to the blood sport.

“At a more extensive level, we also wanted to explore this contentious issue to test whether tourists would be willing to put their money where their mouth is. We found that the answer was a resounding, yes. They are,” said Dr D’Cruze.

The organisation also spoke to nearly 1000 people who were visiting, or planned to visit, South Africa. “We found that over 80% were in favour of the idea of a wildlife protection fee at border entry points that could compensate for any lost revenue from trophy hunting were it to be banned. We calculated, on the basis of two scenarios, that the amount they were willing to pay could generate enough funds to equal, if not exceed, those currently generated by trophy hunting in South Africa. Although more research and due diligence is needed, we hypothesise that these types of efforts could also be successful elsewhere in Southern Africa as well,” said Dr D’Cruze.

What about population control of elephants?

The dynamics of elephant population growth and management in Botswana are complicated by migration patterns and the impacts on neighbouring countries.

“Elephants move freely across borders in Southern Africa, and their movement patterns are influenced by environmental factors, available resources, and human activity. This cross-border movement necessitates regional cooperation in conservation and management strategies to ensure both the protection of elephant populations and the minimization of human-wildlife conflicts,” Ghosh said and added that the Botswana debate is an important pointer for India not to fall into the trap of introducing lethal and unsustainable means of trophy hunting. “Animals ought to be treated as sentient beings and not as commodities.”

The World Animal Protection research highlights the potential risks of relying solely on trophy hunting for wildlife conservation, which may neglect more compassionate, sustainable solutions. “Having spent extensive time in regions rich with wildlife such as India and Southern Africa, I understand the frustrations leading to the radical idea of sending thousands of elephants to Europe—a notion that, while attention-grabbing for newspaper headlines, falls short of a genuine solution. However, as societies increasingly turn away from hunting, presenting trophy hunting as an ethical practice is unlikely to gain broad acceptance. Countries like Botswana must explore and embrace diverse, wildlife-friendly conservation strategies, moving beyond the stalemate of the trophy hunting debate to unlock overlooked potentials,” said D’Cruze.

Wildlife conservationists argue that culling or trophy hunting are not solutions to control the population of growing numbers of wild animals. They advocate for better intra-country coordination during times of migration, particularly for elephants, to ensure their safe passage across borders, the establishment of wildlife corridors and the implementation of population control methods, such as immunocontraception for overpopulated species like deer. These methods not only preserve the lives of these species but also maintain ecological balance and biodiversity.

“Ultimately, in light of human-induced climate change, habitat loss and overexploitation of wildlife, this is a pivotal moment for the future of Southern Africa’s biodiversity,” said Dr D’Cruze.

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