By KLARA GLOWCZEWSKA – Town&Country
Botswana, the flat, sparsely populated, land-bound country in southern Africa—sustained by diamond mining, cattle raising, and high-end tourism—is an unlikely candidate for an international public relations debacle. It is Africa’s oldest continuous democracy, with smooth transfers of power since gaining independence from Britain in 1966. It’s one of the least corrupt countries in Africa (according to the watchdog NGO, Transparency International). And ever since the mid 1980s, it has been the continent’s leader in matters of conservation.
It shows. “Botswana is like Africa 100 years ago” is how the country’s wilderness areas were described to me ahead of my first trip there in 2015—vast unfenced expanses where animals roam free.
Chobe National Park and the Okavango, the huge inland delta that is Botswana’s great natural wonder, are home to the largest concentration of African elephants in the world, some 130,000 these days—fully a third of the continent’s total, 415,000. (The rest are scattered among 36 other countries.) Its lion prides, in this era of predator vanishings, are robust.
Fly over the channels of the Okavango in a helicopter and you’ll see vein-like patterns in the shallow water below—“hippo highways,” they are called, watery traces of the animals’ preferred migration routes. The safari-chic lodges tucked in amid this natural splendor are small, discreet, and determinately low-impact, and you have a virtual guarantee of never experiencing that game-drive mood killer, the “jeep jam.” (Because of the excellence of what they offer, the lodges are also among the priciest in safari land, and taxes levied on them contribute substantially to Botswana’s foreign exchange.)
All this has been assiduously guarded and husbanded—during the last decade, by Ian Khama, the country’s Sandhurst-educated and arch-conservationist former president. (Khama stepped down this past March 31 at the end of his second five-year term, as is constitutionally mandated.) During his presidency, armed soldiers of the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) were deployed in the bush as anti-poaching units. And they carried a big stick: shoot-to-kill orders if the armed men they encountered did not surrender their weapons immediately upon first request.
“We have been criticized for this policy,” Tshekedi Khama, Ian Khama’s brother and his erstwhile minister of the environment, conservation, and tourism, told me a few years ago. “But its message is clear. We are not open for that kind of business.”
The government also “lent” manned military transport planes to their private sector partners—i.e., the tourism companies operating here—to help them move endangered animals from neighboring countries where they were being poached to a safe haven in the national parks of Botswana near their lodges. “What other government does this?” exclaimed the South African director of one such operation, a translocation of rhinos from South Africa that was being spearheaded by the company Wilderness Safaris and in which Uma Thurman and I participated in the summer of 2015.
UMA THURMAN AND MAP IVES IN BOTSWANA IN 2015.ALEXEI HAY
Sweetening it all further for the well-heeled nature lovers was the total ban on hunting which Ian Khama instituted in 2014. The move was not uncontroversial at home: Rural Batswana, as the country’s citizens are called, were thereby being denied an opportunity to profit from the wild animals they lived dangerously close to. But internationally, it was a defining success for Brand Botswana. (It’s no wonder that the engagement ring Prince Harry gave Meghan Markle was sourced in a Botswana diamond mine, and that this is the Africa he chose to show her on their first trip together, in late 2016.)
Elephant Hunting Ban is Overturned
The good cheer came to a screeching halt last week when Ian Khama’s successor and Botswana’s 5th president, Mokgweetsi E.K. Masisi, lifted the ban on elephant hunting. Botswana will now issue 400 trophy-hunting licenses annually. (This is the number permitted under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, a mouthful of an international agreement designed to ensure that whatever we do commercially with wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival; during Khama’s administration, it should be noted, Botswana chose to not exercise its right to those 400 elephant trophy kills.) Masisi also rescinded the shoot-to-kill anti-poaching policy and is advocating, together with neighbors Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Zambia, for the legal resumption of that bugaboo of the conservation world, the ivory trade.
The reason given for lifting the hunting ban was the spike in human-animal conflict caused by elephant overpopulation in Botswana. Last week, the Botswana Gazette reported that in the past two years cases of human-animal conflict have doubled, from 1,500 to almost 3,000. Since the start of 2019, three humans have been killed, including a four-year-old child. In the past 10 years, there have been 50 human fatalities.
While the number of elephants in Africa is rapidly declining from habitat loss, poaching, and unregulated hunting—a century ago the population stood at 3 to 5 million and today’s 415,000 represents a decrease of 110,000 from just a decade ago—Botswana’s elephants have flourished, increasing from 50,000 in 1991 to today’s 130,000. (At least part of that increase is from elephant migration from neighboring Angola; highly intelligent and communicative, elephants were fleeing the violence and landmines of that country’s civil war, which only ended for good in 2002.)
“And that number is more than Botswana’s fragile environment, already stressed by drought and climate change, can safely accommodate,” Masisi said last week, citing the damage elephants can wreak on both their own environment and those of other species. (Each elephant consumes between 200 and 600 pounds of food a day—grasses, tree foliage, bark, twigs, bushes. Sit quietly in any elephant-rich area, and you can hear the ruckus from afar—branches snapping, tree trunks breaking.)
As elephants have started to push beyond traditional boundaries for food and water, they have begun entering the buffer zones between the parks and the villages—zones where hunting used to be allowed and of which elephants were wary (as they were of Angolan warfare). That changed with Khama’s hunting ban. They now proceed with impunity—if this can be said of animals—toward those delicious fields and gardens amid which people live. “You may not believe this,” Botswana’s foreign minister, Unity Dow, wrote openly on May 23rdto a Ms. Sanders, a would-be-tourist threatening no longer to visit Botswana because of the resumption of hunting, “but two years ago, elephants travelled to the edge of the city of Gabarone [Botswana’s capital]; that’s further than 900 km from their natural habitat.”
The international response to the resumption of hunting in Botswana was swift. There was outrage: The well-known Kenya environmental activist Paula Kahumbu called hunting “an archaic practice” that would severely damage Botswana’s leadership position in conservation. A protester shouted at Masisi during a May 31st Las Vegas convention, “You have blood on your hands! You are condoning murder!” (Masisi was there attending a gathering of anti-trophy-hunting activists, presumably as part of the PR counter-offensive he ordered in Europe, the UK, and the United States to protect Botswana’s reputation). And there are calls to hit Botswana where it hurts—to boycott its tourism. A handful of celebrities waded into the fray, including Kristin Davis and Ellen DeGeneres “We’re watching,” DeGeneres declared portentously on Twitter, tagging President Masisi’s official account.
President Masisi, for every person who wants to kill elephants, there are millions who want them protected. We’re watching. #BeKindToElephants @OfficialMasisiYashar Ali ✔@yasharReplying to @yashar4. BREAKING: Botswana is lifting the ban on elephant hunting.
Many believe this is an attempt by President Masisi to curry favor with rural voters ahead of the elections later this year.
Elephants are being used as a political tool. #ProtectElephants13.8K11:30 PM – May 22, 2019Twitter Ads info and privacy5,444 people are talking about this
With African elephants existentially endangered—they appear on the Red List of species at risk of extinction issued by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature—the outcry deploring their killing for sport, especially in what feels like a last refuge, is understandable. Masisi’s recent gift of stools made from elephant feet to regional leaders at a meeting he hosted to discuss the future of elephants did not help. Nor did the rumor that up for discussion was the much decried practice of culling (slaughtering entire family groups of elephants as a means of population control) and the building of meat processing plants to turn elephants into pet food. (Since last week, the government has been busy walking back the notion that these ideas were ever seriously on the table, most likely because they’ve proved so incendiary.)
A Policy’s Economic Complications
The effects of the calls to boycott have thus far been difficult to gauge: Lodge operators have been reluctant, with so much at stake, to publicly address the hot-button issue. One spoke to me on condition of anonymity: “I’ve had three cancellations in the last three days.” Another, likewise requesting anonymity, told me he had no outright cancellations totally attributable to the reinstatement of hunting, “but we have seen an overall slowdown in forwardbookings. The elephant story and the politics and policy around it took the shine off ‘brand Botswana’.”
On the ground in Botswana, even among people who philosophically abhor the idea of killing endangered animals for sport (and have similar responses to images like that of Donald Trump, Jr. triumphantly wielding a knife and a severed elephant tail), the reaction has been more muted and, I think, important to consider.
MAP IVES.ALEXEI HAY
Map Ives is the eminence grise of Botswana conservation and director of the Maun-based NGO Rhino Conservation Botswana. (Prince Harry is a patron of his organization and when he comes to Botswana he visits with Ives and makes extraordinary efforts to attend some of his board meetings.) And Ives, for one, is respectful of the process behind the ban’s lifting. Masisi set up ministerial committees which for two months conducted consultations with Botswana’s various constituencies.
“The ban’s suspension,” Ives told me, “was supported by more than 90 percent of rural Batswana. The decision is very simply their democratic right, which I respect despite having my personal reservations about the underlying reasons and also about who will ultimately benefit, the rural people or the many foreign-owned companies who have access to hunters via their marketing, primarily in the United States.”
Ultimately for Ives, Masisi’s decision is less about environmental and human-animal conflict concerns than it is “about money and jobs.” Botswana, like every other African country, he points out, “has massive unemployment. In Botswana, young people especially have been brought up with expectations of a good quality of life. They wish to climb aboard the middle class train. I don’t believe that many people here really want to kill elephants. It’s just that the hunting and killing of animals is not emotionally problematic for rural people. So when someone comes along and says, ‘Let’s bring back hunting because it can generate a lot of money for your community and create opportunities,’ then obviously you will go for it in the complete absence of anything else.”
Invest, Don’t Protest
I asked him to summarize broadly the economics of trophy hunting, which he was witness to during Botswana’s earlier era of hunting “tourism”: “Hunters employ rural people in their rustic camps as trackers and skinners and gun bearers—skills that photographic safari operators do not want. On top of that, the hunting guests are usually immensely wealthy and generous—tips are massive at the end of a successful hunt, especially if they get a big tusker or large maned lion. And then the village gets the meat to sell. I am not agreeing with any of this philosophically. I don’t like hunters, especially ones who enjoy killing something like an elephant. I’m just saying that I understand what is driving it.”
So what is the answer? Only last month the United Nations published a report on the projected extinction of some 1 million species in the next few decades, as a direct result of human population growth and our patterns of consumption. Steve Osofsky, professor of wildlife health at Cornell University, pointed out in a recent radio interview, riffing on the UN prognosis, that “we would need three earths to sustain everyone in the world having a Western lifestyle.” So isn’t it just wrong to try to alleviate the problems of human overpopulation and poverty by killing more of the already endangered animal species, like elephants?
“Here is what I say,” Ives offers. “If people out there do not want Botswana to shoot elephants, then they have to start investing in Botswana, and Africa. Little from photographic tourism has filtered down into the pockets of the rural poor. So I’m not talking Mickey Mouse investment. It has to run into the tens of billions of dollars, it has to create jobs, and be an international responsibility. You cannot expect profits like you might see in the United States or Europe—the remote areas especially are difficult, with few raw materials and far from markets. But you can take your profits in the future of elephants and other creatures, and in a healthier planet. It is no secret that Africa’s population is growing faster than anywhere else at present, and if they are not included in the global economy, then they will start to eat all of the natural wild areas to turn them into a living of some sort. I repeat, this is a responsibility.”