By Don Pinnock
Elephants have become a hot political issue in Botswana, with President Mokgweetsi Masisi beating the hunting drum, a sure vote-catcher in rural communities. But the country, which has the world’s biggest and most secure elephant population – more than 130,000 – could be staring down the barrels of the poachers’ guns.
For small-scale farmers, elephants can be a danger and a damn nuisance. So when Botswana’s new president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, was looking for rural votes to boost his flagging party in the upcoming elections, calling in the guns was low-hanging fruit. For rural communities, shooting crop raiders, jobs for skinners and a pile of meat the size of an elephant was very attractive.
Politically it was a smart move and got everyone’s attention. Masisi clearly wasn’t just outgoing president Ian Khama’s handpicked successor, but his own man. In every other respect, however, the timing was terrible and the unintended consequences are still rippling outwards.
By chance, Masisi’s move to end the hunting ban coincided with a report by the NGO Elephants Without Borders (EWB), which found serious poaching in the north of the country. Given the massive poaching in Africa, it said an escalation in Botswana, with 130,000 elephants, was likely.
That story jarred badly with the president’s mission to lift the ban, not helped by a Cabinet report which included the suggestion to can elephant meat for dog food upon which the world press pounced.
EWB’s head, Dr Mike Chase, came under personal attack from the government and a compliant press. The survey was dubbed fake news and a plot by foreign lodge owners to undermine the new president.
EWB found itself under immense pressure and its only defence was to make the science unassailable. Its latest report in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Current Biology did just that – Botswana, without a doubt, has an escalating poaching problem.
But first, let’s consider what happens when you reintroduce hunting on a continent where poachers are killing huge numbers of elephants.
Organisations like Safari Club International, pro-hunting propagandists and mass elephant killers like Ron Thomson claim that the presence of hunters reduces poaching. This is unproven and the contrary seems true.
In Tanzania’s huge Selous Game Reserve where legal hunting is widespread, elephant numbers plummeted from 70,000 in 2005 to 10,000 in 2016 from poaching. Once illegal killing is embedded, hunting won’t stop it. The smell of hunting attracts unscrupulous human predators the way blood in the water attracts sharks and the boundary between legal and illegal tends to shift, as South Africa’s experience with rhinos shows.
In 2010 Dawie Groenewald and 10 others, including his wife, veterinarians and professional hunters were arrested and charged with 1,872 crimes, including illegal hunting, dealing in rhino horns, money laundering and fraud. The charge sheet ran to 637 pages.
Groenewald and another co-accused allegedly induced other farmers to dehorn rhinos and sell their horns. Some of the rhinos were not killed, but were dehorned after being tranquillised. Rhinos that were killed were at first reportedly sold to a local butcher, but when this arrangement fell through, they were buried and later burnt on Groenewald’s farm.
The “Groenewald gang” allegedly made about R62.6-million from the illegal sale of rhino horns. Seven years and endless postponements later, the case has mysteriously been deferred to 2021.
Fast forward. Late one afternoon on Friday, 7 June 2019, a man booked into Thobololo Bush Lodge in northern Botswana. He was driving the latest VX-L Land Cruiser Prado and had a very young, dark-haired woman in tow. They kept to themselves, had food sent to their room and checked out the next morning before breakfast. Lodge owner Mike Gunn engaged the man on the way out. Was he on holiday? Where was he heading?
He said he was from Polokwane and was heading into Botswana to scope out hunting concession areas CH1 and CH2. (There are many former hunting concessions which were not used during the ban but could quickly become active.)
When Gunn expressed his distaste for hunting, the man said: “That’s all going to change soon. I have political connections. I will get 14 bulls in each concession.” Gunn then checked the man’s name in the register: Dawie Groenewald. Alarmed, he immediately contacted the relevant authorities.
Of course, poachers take out many more elephants than hunters and they also target bulls with the biggest tusks. But that doesn’t absolve hunters of damage. Here’s a calculation by environmentalist Colin Bell.
Botswana has set the hunting quota at 400 bulls. According to the latest EWB census, the country has about 130,000 elephants, with about 20,600 independent mature bulls. At best, 2,060 to 4,130 of these will be over the age of 35 (based on population figures of males in this age bracket from other populations) and these are what hunters typically target as trophy bulls.
The EWB report estimated 385 carcasses poached within a year. Every one they found was a mature bull over 35 years of age, but let’s be conservative and say only 200 of them were trophy bulls, adding to 400 legally hunted (hunters also go for the big tuskers) – that’s 600 prime male elephants. It means that if this level of hunting and poaching was sustained, within less than seven years, Botswana’s current biggest tuskers could be dead.
Males only begin to regularly reproduce by age 40, by which age 75% of males have died. It would be a genetic disaster and obviously completely unsustainable – and these are the big guys tourists pay to see.
It could be worse. According to Mike Gunn, “I believe that the number of trophy bulls left in Botswana is way down. I see many hundreds of elephant watering at Thobolo Lodge and in the last few years I’ve seen perhaps one bull that could vaguely be considered a trophy.”
Strangely, Botswana’s local hunting industry does not view this as a threat – and their photo-tourist sector has not questioned this quota though it goes to the heart of their industry. It’s worth asking why, but with the government controlling the allocation of their leases, one can understand their reluctance to raise their heads into the firing line.
Much of the reasoning by the Botswana government and justification by hunters for opening hunting is the problems elephants cause farmers who need to be protected. Hunting has nothing to do with this. Shooting trophy elephant bulls does nothing to reduce elephant numbers or prevent human-wildlife conflict.
According to Gunn, the few large remaining tuskers tend to live far away from human habitation and have little or nothing to do with wildlife conflict. So the few elephants that do raid crops are not those trophy hunters wish to bag. So what the government is really talking about is culling. There are other ways.
“Mitigating crop damage can be fairly cheaply achieved by simple and powerful electric fencing that requires little to no maintenance plus other proven methods.
“Funds to achieve this could be easily raised from the international community without Botswana having to shell out for it if the willingness were there from the relevant authorities.”
Returning to poaching. As noted before, Botswana is home to one-third of Africa’s savannah elephants – 130,000– making it critical for their conservation. Flying over 94,000km2 in fixed-wing aircraft and thousands more by helicopter across northern Botswana, EWB found 156 elephants with their skulls split open and tusks removed, a huge increase over the previous survey. The actual number poached is undoubtedly higher than just those seen. All were within five “hot spots”.
‘This evidence,” says EWB, “suggests that ivory poaching on the scale of hundreds of elephants per year has been occurring in northern Botswana since 2017 or possibly earlier.”
Increases in carcass numbers are worrying because it can indicate future poaching increase. In Zimbabwe’s Sebungwe ecosystem, carcass numbers went up in the early 2000s. This was followed by massive poaching and population collapse, with 2014 elephant numbers down by 76% from the early 2000s.
In Mozambique’s Niassa National Reserve, increases in carcass ratios (percentage of dead elephants observed during the count) from 2009 preceded a 78% decrease in elephant populations in just five years. In Kenya’s Tsavo ecosystem the same pattern occurred, a crash in elephant numbers following an earlier poaching uptick. Large numbers of elephants have also been poached in nearby Angola and Zambia.
According to the EWB report, between 2014 and 2018, carcass ratios in Botswana increased from 5% to 16% in the hotspots. “This change,” says the report, “may be a warning sign that Botswana’s elephant population could be at risk in the near future.”
Predation by poachers will have a negative effect on tourism, which accounts for a fifth of the nation’s economy. Foreign safari operators are also worried that hunting and culling will damage Botswana’s reputation as a safe haven for wild animals. Tours are already being cancelled.
In a US poll by the Remington Research Group, three in four respondents considered it important to protect elephants from trophy hunting, 78% did not support the proposed culling and 73% believed that if trophy hunting and elephants culls were started, Botswana’s image as a leader in wildlife conservation would be harmed. Tourists don’t travel blindly.
The EWB survey and research is an important early warning or what could become a national tragedy in Botswana.
“Publishing the new findings in a peer-reviewed journal is about vindication,” EWB’s Mike Chase told National Geographic. “To have your scientific reputation called into question is soul-destroying.
“I’m hoping our [Current Biology] paper will in some way restore my reputation as a well-known elephant conservationist and, more importantly, help with the plight of elephants in our country and restore our legacy of being a safe haven for the world’s largest elephant population.”
Chase remains hopeful – as long as everyone co-operates and the mud-slinging ends. “The evidence in the paper is indisputable and supports our warning that elephant bulls are being killed by poaching gangs. We need to stop them before they become bolder.
“I’m confident that stakeholders can work together to implement necessary measures to curtail poaching. In the end, Botswana will be judged, not for having a poaching problem, but for how it deals with it.”