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When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers

The hunting debate goes on PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
The opinions by local nature experts that appeared in Mmegi of July 06, 2018 about the lifting of the hunting ban make for fascinating reading.

The first opinion by Dr Michael Chase, a Motswana elephant researcher, makes some compelling points against lifting the hunting ban. He cites an example of the Chobe Enclave, where DWNP statistics reveal that Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) incidents are the same as when hunting was permitted, meaning that lifting the hunting ban would not alleviate the problem.

Rather than hunting, he posits that “a range of interventions, policies and incentives including education, recognising animal migration corridors, rapid response to conflicts and allocation of agricultural plots in appropriate areas and promotion of localised eco-tourism businesses” would be a more sustainable approach. Dr Chase also warns that reintroduction of hunting could cause irreparable harm to Botswana’s brand overseas and damage to tourism.

Dr Steve Boyes, a National Geographic explorer brings a more balanced approach, calling for greater participation of natives, while warning against lifting the hunting ban. He puts it in blunt racial terms, saying “there are very few black Batswana owners and shareholders” of successful safari companies in the North. This means local farmers have to bear the burden of destruction by elephants while big tour operators photograph the crop raiders for profit.

Professor K. Somerville, the third commentator appears to be pro-hunting and points out some flaws in the study by Dr. Chase that led to the imposition of the hunting ban. He observes that the cause of the decline in other species like ostrich, wildebeest, tshesebe, giraffes, warthogs and kudu was not investigated.

Somerville also highlights that a study by Professor Joseph Mbaiwa found that the ban “is not supported by any scientific evidence, and there was no involvement of local communities in the decision-making process”.

It is very refreshing to see a socio-scientific debate raging in our media. One wishes a similar debate could have preceded the hunting ban. Why was there no debate? May be the overriding concern at the time was the power to make the decision rather than its legitimacy or sustainability.

That would explain why, the same MPs who hardly said a word when the ban was instituted in 2014 now vote overwhelmingly in 2018 to ask government to reconsider the ban. Either that or they have evidence that the ban was a bad idea. Either way one hopes the MPs will avoid the impetuous conduct that led us to this point, by consulting properly and reviewing the evidence. If they rely on their sheer numbers to force a reversal of the hunting ban, we are back to might-is-right politics again – majoritarian tyranny

The warning that the reintroduction of hunting could have a negative effect on our country should be taken seriously. The potential lobby involved – international superstars, NGOs, societies, etc., some with strong local representation, including on their boards, not to mention billionaire philanthropists who fund these researches is truly mind boggling. Mention need be made that of recent the likes of Richard  Branson of Virgin fame, took up a significant stake through an impact fund in Wilderness Safaris.

It could require the same energy spent on blood diamonds to counter the negative publicity. One of these influential eco-foster parents gloated on Talk Radio 702, a South Africa station, that he takes credit for advising President Ian Khama to ban hunting. Clearly Botswana cannot take on such titans and prevail

Dr. Chase makes a valid argument in calling for a holistic approach to reducing HEC. A striking example of gross disrespect for nature is found in Kasane where, in the name of private property rights, an animal corridor has been blocked by electric fence along the main artery connecting Chobe National Park and Victoria Falls. As a result; buffaloes, elephants, impalas, etc. cannot access the river and they aggregate, agitated and in their hundreds, in the middle of a busy road. Elephants do not know or care who owns this property and will likely continue to use this corridor just as they have done for many years.

Section 8 of the Constitution of Botswana is definitely applicable to this situation, if our environmental credentials are not fake and selfserving.

It is refreshing for an ardent supporter of hunting ban like Dr. Chase to admit that communities who complain of elephants making their lives unbearable do raise valid points. At least this is one point that the two sides agree on. One side appears to blame government incompetence in not promulgating or implementing policies to mitigate the effects of the ban and make it sustainable. The other side pretty much blames government for behaving like an occupying force, imposing well-meaning decisions on its people, without considering the consequences. This suggests that government should not rely on closet advisors and should debate issues openly in order to improve the quality of its decisions.

As for inclusive tourism business model, the best way to bring natives into the high-end tourism is through written policy of course, but so far the Citizen Economic Empowerment Policy is about procurement and thus excludes tourism. Frequent promises are nevertheless made by politicians to “empower citizens” as though personal discretion trumps policy. Even more alarming is the suggestion to “reserve” certain areas for citizen tour operators, evoking elements of the 1913 Native Land Act that preceded the creation of Bantustans. The mind-set is incompatible with a sustainable improvement in the participation of citizens in the tourism business.

Something interesting happened after former president Ian Khama appointed his own brother to then ministry of Wildlife, Tourism and Environment. He added Conservation, possibly transferred from Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources (an innocuous phrase for tourism land control) to the portfolio.

This means all the factors highlighted in the hunting debate were aggregated in this ministry, possibly underlining the belief that the fate of wild animals such as elephants is intertwined with wider socioeconomic policy issues. Although the key functions are concentrated in one ministry, the ministry cannot champion and implement everything by itself, rather it is mainly expected to

provide leadership and coordination in all matters in its portfolio.

For example it is obvious that if government wants to preserve carrying capacity for all creatures domestic and wild in Okavango and Ngamiland, Conservation and/or Stock Orders have to be issued under the Agricultural Conservation Act of 1974. In this case the Minister of Environment would have to motivate and coordinate the necessary actions as well as persuade his Cabinet colleagues to lend support.

But what is unclear is whether, in expanding this ministry’s portfolio, relevant strategies, policies and laws were migrated and gazetted. It is possible that such organisational process assets were not harmonised, leading to dilution of their effectiveness and erosion of citizen rights embedded in such policies. This can only lead to duplication of roles and turf wars.

As a long term solution the welfare of elephants could be considerably improved by a trade-off between Ngamiland/Okavango and a part of CKGR. The latter is fairly elephant free and suitable for cattle ranching, whereas the former areas have a bigger tourism profile and revenue potential.

This swap or such radical initiatives, when combined with policies like CBNRM, would require the sort of leadership, consultation and evidenced based decision-making that we are yet to see. The current intended reversal of the hunting ban is evidence that the ban, notwithstanding its intrinsic merits as seen by its supporters, was badly planned and executed. Now the impacts of the ban on the stakeholders is forcing a re-think now, to avert a revolution later.

Additionally it would be great, if instead of getting emotional over elephants, all sides of the debate including the natives, could consider the issues in broad terms. The citizens/natives/communities/blacks or whatever the politically correct term is, ought to take a particular interest in the debate, for they are the real victims of the b

They are also victims of marauding elephants and ultimately victims of ecological collapse. The scientific debate offers fascinating insights which could aid otherwise ignorant, dismissible natives to ask pertinent questions of the leadership.

Suddenly we have the right ammunition to ask our leaders about policy forum for debating such matters, representation, budget commitments, surveys, research, etc. We could go on to interrogate the legitimacy and efficacy of policy development and implementation as well.

We could additionally ask about Pan African trans-border cooperation initiatives which are critical for the long-term survival of elephants as a species. Although cross border cooperation could in theory be led by any neighbouring country, Botswana reportedly has the most elephants and is geographically in the centre of Southern Africa as well as being comparatively sparsely populated - a natural haven for elephants and thus a natural sponsor for their protection.

The assertion that at times the number of elephants captured by a census is low because of migration to other countries must be followed up and confirmed.

It has serious implications for our strategy of militarised conservation because it begs the question: why wouldn’t a poacher wait for elephants in a less secure neighbouring country (where he comes from anyway) instead of challenging our high tech, heavily armed, helicopter borne anti-poaching unit that shoots to kill? Again, the idea that elephants cross borders would make regional cooperation an imperative.

Dr. Chase says elephants use Botswana as a refuge because they are shot elsewhere. This implies that in Botswana we can contain elephants in the areas where they occur naturally by shooting them if they venture outside - a reasonable management tactic if used judiciously and not as part of the highly emotive trophy hunting. Researchers based in the north of Botswana appear to ignore problems posed by elephants in other parts of the country. Ploughing fields, cattle farms, game farms and communal farming are all affected by elephants. They destroy infrastructure, damage crops and terrorise workers. The idea of restricting their movements to their natural habitats is therefore relevant to the discussion, notwithstanding there are other people facing a bigger problem where the elephants occur naturally.

If as reportedly found by Professor Somerville, there has been an alarming decline in other species like giraffe, kudu, etc., the government should be asked what it has done to reverse the situation.

Traditionally the answer to such a question would be a political rant and a demand for anti-poaching funds. Thanks to our eminent researchers and their media opinions, we now know this problem is too complex to be addressed in this manner. It is simply misleading to attribute such ecological challenges to commercial hunting and poaching. Here too we must demand answers, for it is possible that elephants themselves out compete other species for browsing and grazing. Professor Somerville says Botswana has a carrying capacity of only 50,000 elephants (is this a fact?) and we were at some point sitting at 237,000 elephants. If it turns out we are experimenting with increasing elephant numbers to infinity in the name of environmental activism, someone should explain how this will end.

Finally, we the natives understand that the raging debate is about money, none of which is our business.

Some want to photograph elephants alive while others want to shoot them first. The native is caught in the crossfire (pun, what pun?) and hopes to gain employment from the side that wins. This needs to be resolved and soon. Subsistence farmers and hunter-gatherers that we are, tend to view the stewardship of our own flora and fauna as an elitist enterprise. How ironic.

Conservation, which concerns our very survival, is run by caprice and dominated by big business and international headlines. One suspects the local stakeholders are uncoordinated and frustrated bystanders. A case in point is the plight of animals like mountain reedbuck and klipspringer in the southeastern parts of the country, which could quietly undergo local extinction without eliciting much interest.

Shooting or no shooting, elephants cannot win until consultation and evidence-based decision making prevails.

*Gontse Kgosiemang is a Motswana who loves nature

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