Botswana on Wednesday announced the lifting of its ban on elephant hunting, attributing its decision to an apparent rise in “human-elephant conflict” caused by rising elephant numbers. Conservationists, however, criticized the move as not being grounded in science and said it could have negative effects on Botswana’s thriving wildlife-driven tourism industry.
Botswana is home to the world’s largest elephant population, with about 130,000 living in the southern African country, according to conservationists. After diamonds, tourism is Botswana’s biggest foreign-income earner.
The government banned hunting elephants in 2014 at the direction of then-President Ian Khama, a staunch conservationist. But the ban has been controversial in Botswana, where advocates for lifting the ban say the growing number of elephants has affected locals’ livelihoods.
When Mokgweetsi E.K. Masisi became president last year, he set up a committee to assess whether the ban should be overturned. Masisi also ended Botswana’s “shoot to kill” anti-poaching policy, which allowed the military to kill suspected poachers.
In a statement Wednesday, Botswana’s Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism said the committee determined that with the hunting suspension in place, “human-elephant conflict and the consequent impact on livelihoods was increasing.”
The committee’s “general consensus from those consulted was that the hunting ban should be lifted,” the ministry said.
Botswana’s general elections are set to take place in October, and the hunting ban has become a campaign issue, particularly in rural areas where the elephant populations are more prominent.
Last year, lawmaker Konstantinos Markus told Reuters that constituents in his home region have been negatively affected by the ban. The growing elephant population meant the animals were increasingly coming into contact with farms, he said, where they trampled crops and harmed locals’ income.
“This harvest loss leaves the community with fewer options to take care of their households while perceptions of local communities towards wildlife conservation have changed since the hunting ban,” he told the news agency.
Masisi has stirred some controversy over his approach. Earlier this month, when leaders from Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia visited Botswana, Masisi gifted them stools made out of elephant feet.
Wildlife conservationists have expressed alarm over Masisi’s lifting of the hunting ban as well as the broader shift in attitudes toward conservation away from Khama’s policies.
“The new arguments for hunting are all wrong — population control, decrease in human-elephant conflict, lots of money for local communities. What facts are those based in?” asked Mike Chase, director of Elephants Without Borders, a charity based in Botswana that does scientific research on local elephant populations. “The reality is that elephant numbers are not growing massively, nor is the incidence of human-elephant conflict.”
There has been disagreement among African leaders over the best course to take when it comes to elephant hunting and ivory sales. South Africa and Zimbabwe, for instance, allow trophy hunting.
Government leaders in some southern African countries, including Botswana, have argued that loosening the restriction on ivory sales could allow them to use those profits to fund further conservation efforts.
In 2016, Kenyan officials burned more than $172 million worth of ivory and rhino horns in a dramatic gesture signaling their unwillingness to consider opening up to the ivory market. Hunting has been banned there for almost 50 years.
In Botswana’s case, some wildlife conservation organizations have expressed concern that lifting the ban could fuel widespread targeting of elephants.
Paula Kahumbu, chief executive of WildlifeDirect, tweeted that the ban was lifted under the “guise of helping communities as Masisi destroys Khama’s globally respected legacy of policies that saw elephants protected.”
“Expect mass culling next,” she wrote, and “aggressive efforts [to] reopen ivory trade.”
Max Bearak contributed to this report.