Botswana’s Elephants: Myths vs. Facts


Botswana’s president, Dr. Mokgweetsi Masisi, recently hosted a summit in Kasane, Botswana for five southern African heads of state to forge a common regional elephant conservation policy. Masisi’s administration has recently proposed ending the ban on elephant hunting that was enacted under former president Ian Khama in 2014.

The Kasane conference did not make a final decision on hunting in Botswana, but the speakers articulated a number of myths that support the consumptive “sustainable use” of elephants, which the world – and most African elephant range states – have turned their backs on. Below, this article dispels those myths.

1. Botswana’s elephant population has surged to 160,000 from 55,000 in 1991.

This is the subtext for the claim that there are ‘too many elephants.’ But it is false on both fronts. In 1983, Botswana’s elephant population numbered between 70,000 and 75,000. It had certainly not dropped to 55,000 by 1991. The latest scientific survey of Northern Botswana estimates the population to be roughly 126,114, which is not significantly different from the 2014 figure. In other words, the population is stable, not growing. Moreover, the 2014 figure reflected a 15% decline during the preceding decade.

Adult and baby elephants in Botswana. Image credit Claire Gribbin, CC BY-SA 3.0.

2. Botswana has exceeded its ‘carrying capacity’ of 54,000 elephants.

This figure is based on the idea that a landscape can handle only 0.4 elephants per square kilometer, which comes from an outdated Hwange Game Reserve management policy that had no scientific basis, says Conservation expert Ian McDonald. The concept of “carrying capacity” has no relevance for vast, unfenced wilderness landscapes that adapt and can maintain integrity without human intervention.

A large number of scientists wrote in the peer-reviewed journal Ambio that they did not see ‘any ecological reason to artificially change the number of elephants in [Botswana’s] Chobe National Park, either through culling or opening new dry season ranges.’ What matters is not ‘carrying capacity’ but dispersion and concentration of elephant herds. Hunting and fences create concentration, which leads to vegetation damage. Even then, the ecological benefits that elephants provide more than compensate for small areas of vegetation damage.

3. Hunting will solve the “population explosion problem.”

The truth is that hunting only targets the big tuskers, thus reducing genetic diversity. Elephant trophy hunting is typically rationalized on the grounds that it only eliminates old bulls that are ‘surplus’ to herd requirements. Such small-scale elimination would therefore obviously be incapable of controlling a population, especially given that Botswana only permitted the export of 800 elephants (of which only approximately 340 were actually hunted) per year in the decade prior to the hunting ban.

Moreover, there is no such thing as ‘surplus’ elephants. Dr. Michelle Henley writes that “in the past, bulls over 50 years of age were considered redundant, but more recent studies have found that bulls do not reach their sexual prime until they are over 45 years old.”

Trophy hunting targets bull elephants with large tusks, like this one. Image credit grooble, CC BY-SA 3.0.

4. Bringing back hunting will solve human and elephant conflict (HEC) and increase benefits to local communities.

Proponents of hunting argue that it generates revenue that flows directly to local communities and thus disincentivises both poaching and the killing of errant crop-raiders. But hunting is rooted in a colonial mindset that castigated indigenous people as ‘poachers’ and colonialists as ‘hunter-conservationists.’ So, the colonial hunting fraternity established fortress conservation, which displaced and disempowered local communities, but now paints itself as the savior of people and elephants.

HEC can be mitigated through humane solutions, such as the strategic placement of beehives or use of chili peppers. Safe migratory corridors in which human settlement is limited can also be established. Ultimately, if communities are empowered to earn and receive benefits from elephants being alive, such as through sustainable photographic tourism, HEC would become manageable.

Hunting is not the answer, as the global hunting industry is in decline and is fundamentally unsustainable in open ecological systems.

5. The hunting moratorium led to increased poaching.

The false logic is that poaching has increased in the wake of hunting’s absence, and the latter must therefore be the cause of the former. However, poaching only started to increase in 2017, three years after the moratorium was imposed. Poaching may well have been minimized if former hunting concessions had been re-allocated to allow photographic safari expansions.

6. Renewed trade in ivory will alleviate poaching and fund conservation.

Trading in ivory will not necessarily bring prices down and thereby end poaching. This is a naïve view based on the argument that prohibition never works. The legal trade would simply serve as a cover for illegal trade and money derived from official ivory sales would not necessarily fund conservation or benefit local communities.


In the final analysis, the southern African countries represented at the Kasane Conference appear intent on moving against science and cogent argument. As a physical emblem of President Masisi’s embrace of consumptive use, he gifted his fellow heads of state with elephant footstools.

Featured image: three elephants seen in Botswana. The country’s elephants are now threatened by trophy hunters after a five year ban on hunting. Image credit Jeremy T. Hetzel, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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