It is a topic on which most people are not neutral – hunting, specifically hunting elephants in Africa. High emotions and even higher tempers can flare up around this subject.
To many, it seems utterly obvious who the villains are – legal, high-paying, visiting hunters and local illegal poachers. Easy, right?
But is it that simple?
These days it seems easier to focus on blame than to attempt understanding. But to find answers we must look beyond what is easy.
My father was a hunter who hunted deer and wild boar. While he and I had frequent but futile discussions on the subject, he taught me to respect all life and to never take more than you can use and never kill for the sake of the kill.
Botswana recently made world-wide headlines when it lifted its five-year suspension of elephant hunting, much to the shock and chagrin of conservationists and animal lovers across the globe.
Before we protest, we must first ask why this situation developed.
In 2014, the country’s former President Ian Khama, a passionate conservationist, imposed the hunting ban. He also announced a highly provocative “shoot to kill” policy to shoot poachers on sight and he armed the anti-poaching units with lethal weapons. The president’s goal was a worthy one, to put an end to the practice of killing endangered elephants for trophies and for ivory.
Botswana is home to about a third of Africa’s remaining elephants and it became an instant conservation superstar with the new ban. But one of the overwhelming results of the ban that has been largely overlooked by much of the world was a near total loss of income to local communities that depended on those dollars for their survival. They already commanded scarce resources. Without that income, families went without food, parents could not send their children to school or sustain even the basics of daily life.
With the lifting of the ban this year by the current government of President Mokgweetsi Masisi, Botswana faced a tremendous backlash internationally from organizations such as the Humane Society International and, according to The New York Times, Botswana Ends Ban on Elephant Hunting, from celebrities such as television favorite Ellen DeGeneres and others.
President Masisi was faced with decisions – hard ones, where either road could result in a loss of important financial resources for this relatively poor nation. The choices seemed to be between bad and equally bad.
Proponents of hunting believe that permanently removing the ban would allow for the culling of overpopulations and lead to a lessening of elephant-human conflicts. Elephants have been known to kill livestock, destroy crops and damage local communities’ livelihoods. But there is a flaw in that argument.
According an article in the Journal of African Elephants, Botswana’s return to elephant hunting won’t solve any problems, ex-President says, by David McKenzie and Brent Swails, “Many conservationists believe that renewed hunting won’t impact the conflict between humans and animals. Crop-raiding and problem elephants are often part of family herds or young males, and hunters usually pursue the biggest bulls that often roam far from people in the deep bush.”
Those who support a return of the ban aim to protect the elephants for today and tomorrow; and insure the continued positive reputation of Botswana as a premier conservation and wildlife destination in Africa. The growing tourism industry is vital to the country’s economic future.
It was against this background that in June 2018, the government undertook a nationwide conversation with a variety of groups and individuals as well as tourism businesses and stakeholders in Botswana to review the suspension.
But there is also the aspect, often left out of these conversations. What about the elephants themselves? After decades of observation and research, few can doubt that elephants experience emotions, and share many of the same feelings we do. We know they are capable of sadness, joy, love, anger, grief and compassion.
The sad truth remains that, as reported on Smithsonian.com, Five Things to Know About Botswana’s Decision to Lift Ban on Hunting Elephants “…in Africa, ‘an elephant is being killed by poachers on average every fifteen minutes,’ said Don Pinnock, a conservation journalist and author of The Last Elephants. ‘Botswana is the last refuge for these elephants, and suddenly that refuge is going to start hunting them.’”
As yet there is no “best’ solution to this intractable issue. That means we must look harder and farther for solutions, for a third side of this circle, if you will.
Private conservancy models that provide employment, educational opportunities and access to previously unavailable medical clinics, have worked well in several places in Africa, especially in East Africa. In Botswana, the Okavango Delta private concessions border Moremi Game Reserve. These government lands are leased by safari companies on an exclusive-use basis. This can lead to another potential problem when these wholly owned foreign companies take all the revenue out of the country, returning little or none to the people of Botswana. Private conservancies work best when local communities become actual stakeholders with a say in the future.
Once again, this points to the complicated nature that the fight for elephants encompasses. Since its beginnings in 1973 in Nairobi, Big Five has never offered any journeys related to hunting, trophy or otherwise, but we realize that all sides of this issue must be brought to the table if we are to begin a genuine discussion to find answers with which all of us and the elephants can live.
Brand Manager, Big Five