ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Licenses to hunt 70 elephants were auctioned off Friday in Botswana's capital, Gaborone, less than a year after the government there lifted a five-year-old hunting ban in hopes of reducing human-elephant conflict, after the conservation effort led to an increase in the pachyderm population.

The auction was not open to reporters, and organizers refused to speak about it when contacted. Participants put down deposits of about $18,000 each for a seat.

Wildlife hunting is a controversial topic in Africa, with critics saying that the income governments get from licensing the killing of threatened species such as elephants does little to expand wider conservation efforts. Bot­swana’s former president, Ian Khama, was a renowned opponent of elephant hunting, and he instituted a ban that was at odds with all five of Botswana’s neighboring countries.

A spokeswoman for Botswana’s wildlife department told the Reuters news agency that reducing clashes with elephants was part of the reason for issuing licenses in particular parts of the country. “The seven areas chosen are those most impacted by human-wildlife conflict, especially involving elephants,” Alice Mmolawa said.

Botswana is home to around 130,000 elephants, or about a third of all elephants in Africa. (TWP)

Khama’s successor, Mokgweetsi Masisi, has turned elephant hunting into a populist issue. Elephant populations, he and his supporters claim, have grown too large and now regularly trample farms in search of food. His overturning of the ban was widely cheered in the lead-up to Masisi’s reelection late last year.

Under Khama, Botswana was considered a trailblazer in conservation efforts, and Masisi’s moves have soured many elephant lovers on visiting the country.

Each of the seven hunting ­“packages” will come with licenses to kill 10 elephants, and each was expected to sell at a price between $300,000 and $500,000. The hunting season officially begins in April.

About 130,000 of Africa’s elephants, or a third, live in Botswana, mostly in the northern Chobe grasslands and Okavango swamp. Residents of those areas have complained of increasing human-elephant conflict, resulting in deaths and lost harvests. Their resentment is also directed toward conservationists — whom they see as mostly white and foreign, and whom they accuse of directing little of the profits of wildlife-driven tourism their way.

Masisi provoked animal rights activists last year by giving stools made of elephant feet to visiting heads of state and raising the possibility, if only in jest, of processing elephant meat as pet food.

Mike Chase, who runs Elephants Without Borders, a research charity that conducts the only elephant census in Botswana, disputed the government’s assertion that human-elephant conflict was on the rise, and said the government’s own data shows instances of it have been relatively constant.

Botswana’s new policy stands in contrast to that of another home to a huge elephant population: Kenya. Hunting has been banned in Kenya for decades, and tourism revenue is drawn entirely from “photographic safaris.”

On Thursday, one of Kenya’s most iconic elephants, Tim, died at age 50 of natural causes. Tim was well known for raiding farms, but Kenya’s wildlife service digitally tracked him and attempted to disrupt the raids rather than have farmers take matters into their own hands.

Speaking about Tim’s death and Friday’s auction in Botswana, Paula Kahumbu, one of Kenya’s leading conservationists and elephant advocates, said she felt disgusted and enraged.

“In Kenya, elephants are massive and calm. They still grow to towering majestic heights with tusks that swoop to the ground,” she said. “What a contrast to Bot­swana, where such giants are reduced to auctioned commodities, fit only for blood sport and entertainment for bored rich people from another world.”

Elephant-hunting licenses can costs tens of thousands of dollars each, representing a major source of income for state wildlife departments. Botswana’s government has said it will issue only 400 licenses per year at a maximum.