There Are Less Harmful Ways to Help People and Elephants Coexist


Irked by widespread local and international opposition to its decision to reopen elephant trophy hunting, the Botswanan government has become increasingly strident and populist in defense of its actions.

In City Press in February, the Botswanan Minister of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism, Philda Kereng, asked critics: “Should we rather kill people and leave elephants to run Botswana?”

“Their [the critics]silence [about the loss of]human life and livelihoods is deafening, yet they are highly vocal on animal rights,” she added.

The Botswanan Government argues that trophy hunting elephants will help reduce human-elephant conflict and raise revenue for poor rural communities. Critics say the hunting will only exacerbate the problem of wildlife conflict and will damage the social structure of elephant populations, weakening conservation programs.

The Minister’s statements are provocative and misleading, as she disingenuously attempts to conflate hunting of elephants with killing of people, whereas no one is remotely suggesting the killing of people to save elephants. This statement does nothing to address the issue of human-elephant conflict, but attempts to demean those working to improve the situation without resorting to killing elephants. She chooses to ignore the fact that those opposed to elephant trophy hunting are just as eager to resolve the issue of human-elephant conflict as is the Botswanan government.  

NGO’s and scientists working with elephants in Botswana and other countries regularly meet and work with rural communities to  explore solutions that are beneficial to both people and elephants. Elephants do sometimes kill people in rural Africa, and they also do destroy crops, but addressing these issues is a key component of many conservation programs, which propose tried and tested non-lethal alternatives such as bees, flashing lights and alarms.

“Effective strategic planning that seeks to support the mutual well-being of humans and elephants centers on the co-existence rather than their conflict,” researchers note in a 2019 paper entitled “Human Elephant Conflict: A Review of Current Management Strategies and Current Directs (L. Jen Schaffer et al). “We offer a model to guide future research that supports long-term solutions for sustainable land management decisions and promotes peaceful coexistence of humans and elephants.”

A researcher studies elephant behavior around hunting areas. Image credit U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, CC BY-SA 2.0.

This, and other research, notes that killing of elephants in an attempt to reduce human-elephant conflict often simply shifts the problem elsewhere.

Permits to hunt 270 elephants in Botswana were auctioned off before the hunting season commenced in April.

So determined were the Botswanan authorities to allow hunters to shoot the animals that they ignored an offer from the EMS Foundation, a South African based NGO, to buy the permits “with the express intention that the elephants in these packages are not hunted should our bid be successful” and that any monies paid would  “be appropriately distributed in a way that benefits conservation.” This would have meant that local communities still benefited financially.  

The Botswanan government ignored the offer, insisting that the licences could only be purchased by those who intended to shoot the animals. 

The Botswana Weekend Post reported on February 3rd 2020 that Kitso Mokaila, a former Minister of the Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation and Tourism had been involved in contentious negotiations with a hunting outfitter over the granting of some of the hunting licences.

The hunting packages were bought by a few wealthy, mainly white and well connected individuals who had run hunting operations in Botswana prior to the moratorium.

The Minister’s question “Should we rather kill people and leave elephants to run Botswana?” also needs to be seen in the light of increasingly bitter comments by some Southern African leaders who have accused those opposed to the reopening of the trade in ivory and elephant trophy hunting of promoting Western elitist views at the expense of rural Africans. 

Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe see trophy hunting as a means of raising money for their increasingly cash-strapped economies. Despite their public attacks on “outsiders” opposing their pro-use wildlife policies, they are strongly influenced by large international  hunting organizations such as the American-based Safari Club International (SCI), the world largest hunting organisation. SCI is known to fund pro-hunting research in Botswana.

SCI also pays ICG (the Inclusive Conservation Group, who are powerful pro-hunting lobbyists) to encourage pro-hunting opinion in Botswana. ICG boasts online that that over the past year it has “deployed a dual track communications strategy” and states that it knows “from digital feedback that lifting the ban is extremely popular in Botswana.”

In addition to its obvious harm to individuals, trophy hunting is seriously disruptive to elephant social structure. Image credit Claire Gribbin, CC BY-SA 2.0.

“Since January 19th, ICG sponsored social media efforts have reached millions of Botswana citizens,” ICG states. “The President of Botswana (Mokgweetsi Masisi) has posted our content to his personal Facebook page. We continue to provide and amplify capability to the people of Botswana to stand up against the global elite”

Last year SCI honored President Masisi with their “Legislator of the Year” award, further illustrating the close relationship that exists between the Botswanan government and conservative Western hunting groups.

A press release from the Botswanan government published on February 23rd stated that “the decision to lift the hunting moratorium was based on a democratic, consultative and nationwide process of affected stakeholders,” and added that “a general consensus from those consulted was that the hunting moratorium should be lifted.”

It made no reference to the role of ICG in influencing opinion. Additionally, many areas where human-elephant conflict is supposedly most severe, and whose residents are meant to be assisted by the granting of hunting permits, did not vote for the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) in the last election. According to polling maps published by the government, most of these areas were won by opposition parties.

Minister Kereng’s portfolio also includes tourism, a critically important component of Botswana’s economy. The elephant trophy hunting issue has caused ripples of discontent throughout the tourism industry, although almost no one is willing to discuss the matter publicly for fear of offending the government and losing their concessions. 

Dereck Joubert, a prominent figure in Botswana’s tourism industry, is one of the few to have publicly spoken out against trophy hunting. For this he has been condemned by influential politicians and received warnings that his tourism concessions will be taken away. 

The Botswana Tourism Organization proudly encourages prospective visitors to “experience the stunning beauty….the astoundingly prolific wildlife of the best kept African secret, Botswana.”

The Minister’s reckless remarks, and the government’s decision to allow trophy hunting at the cost of sound elephant management, reveals another secret that tourists and others should know: one of high-level collusion with elitist hunters and unwillingness to embrace less harmful ways of ensuring that people and elephants can live together in peace.

Featured image: elephants in Botswana. Image credit Malcolm Macgregor, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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The Conservation Action Trust works for the protection of threatened species by promoting the objective investigation and reporting of important conservation and environmental issues affecting these species. Click to see author's profile.

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