Anticipating this catastrophe, I was working with the Sankuyo community on an alternative economic plan. Most land use plans were written by biologists, and neglected issues such as the economic development of communities.
Being located on the edge of the Okavango Delta, roughly half of Sankuyo’s land has strong potential for tourism while the other half is only suitable for hunting.
Despite the claims that we hear about ecotourism, our data showed that it contributed less than 20% of the community’s wildlife economy, compared to more than 80% from hunting. Tour operators were also far less engaged in community affairs and wildlife management than hunters.
This did not need to be the case. First, inept governance of the tourism operations in the area was allowing serious underperformance, with few community benefits. Second, the current tourism strategy of high-fee foreign tourism is questionable, except when used judiciously. Our economic models showed that Sankuyo, and indeed Botswana’s economy, could increase jobs and income many fold by using half its area for a substantial three-star tourism lodge, while continuing hunting in less attractive habitats.
Land in Botswana should be allocated following economic and ecological principles, not according to who tells the best story. Tourism generates high revenues from prime areas, but is quite useless as a tool for maintaining connectivity in the other 90% or more of the landscape where tourists would never go because it is too hot, too remote, or too harsh.
Only hunting can manage and finance these vast landscapes. Hunting thrives in vast areas of northern Botswana that are too harsh for tourism, together with the game water supplies and wildlife protection provided by hunters (e.g., CT 1,2,3 NG42, 41, 43 and 47). Just as prioritising tourism in prime areas in the Okavango Delta is economically sensible, ignoring the value of hunting in these marginal lands represents poor land use planning.
If Botswana is really to become a major wildlife country again, this will require maximising the wildlife economy through careful economic planning that includes a far more diverse and imaginative tourism sector, trophy hunting, and wildlife products and their manufacture.
High-end tourism is clearly important. It is highly profitable for tour operators, far less so for communities, but makes tourism possible where costs are high because governments are not investing in parks, wildlife management, infrastructure and communications. However, wildlife tourism that excludes all but the mega-rich is problematic.
So is the environmental footprint and social perception of extreme pampering, such as a plunge pool for every tent. This highlights the fact that tourism, not hunting, is the ‘consumptive’ activity. Tourism requires game-viewing tracks, water use, solid-waste disposal, carbon footprints, and so on. By contrast, hunting may consume a few adult male animals, but generates far more income per unit of energy or water consumed, and may reduce the consumption of plants or leave the ecosystem in better balance.
While reintroducing hunting is a no-brainer, Botswana could expand its tourism economy substantially by diversifying and expanding its tourism product with new policies that promote three-star tourism in some prime wildlife areas, including a focus on the middle class African market.
In South Africa, for example, the greater Kruger ecosystem generates R6.6 billion in GDP, R3.4 billion in wages, and R 1.5 billion in taxes. This is twice the size of Botswana’s entire P2.52 billion tourism sector. I am not implying East Africa style minivans and chaos, but a well-planned tourism sector with disciplined and proactive management based on performance metrics that include wildlife conservation, jobs and economic growth, and careful investment in infrastructure and wildlife management.
Building a wildlife economy requires a careful combination of ecotourism, hunting, meat production and wildlife product.
Policy makers should pay more attention to economics, community, and biodiversity, and less to the shrill misinformation of the recent past. Economically speaking, there is no reason that the incredible wildlife spectacle that Botswana used to have, and still has in parts, cannot be re-created. Just as Botswana will need to make bold decisions about elephants, there is much to be gained by making informed tradeoffs between wildlife and livestock.
This depends on cultural and political decisions about the cattle industry that, to a significant extent, has squeezed Botswana’s wildlife into a few remaining corners. The emergence of game farming in the region over the past three decades is an economic response by landholders to the growing profitability of wildlife, and the declining returns from livestock.
The price of livestock, like most agricultural commodities, has been declining steadily since the
In Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia wildlife earns as much as four times that of livestock, with four times as many jobs and much higher skill levels and wages. Ironically, wildlife saved many cattle ranchers from bankruptcy and environmental decline. In the face of climate change, Botswana may be facing a similar choice at a much larger scale.
My recommendation would be for Botswana to aim to quadruple the size of its wildlife economy in the next decade to at least P10-20 billion. The easiest step is to reintroduce trophy hunting. Local communities clearly need to become a primary beneficiary, which will require clearer, bolder CBNRM policy, with more focus on community proprietorship and governance.
There are enormous gains to be had by re-thinking the tourism strategy, guided by a policy focus on maximising jobs and economic growth while minimising the sector’s environmental footprint.
The singular focus on high-end foreign tourism needs to be critically examined, encouraging major investment in mid-level tourism and, indeed, on the growing middle income African market. Sustained expansion of tourism will require much better planning and maintenance of tourism areas and hubs like Maun and Kasane.
Managing excess elephants judiciously in a politically heated arena will take powerful leadership and vision, backed by careful science and calculation. Bold policy could return Botswana to the ecosystems of old by building a multi-billion-pula wildlife economy in which the whole country, and especially rural people, have a genuine stake and livelihood option. Without hunting, or even culling, this is not an option.
The hardest decision, politically, is what to do about having far too many elephants. Avoiding hard decisions has only made this decision even harder, with a high risk of ecological catastrophe not least for the elephants themselves.
In the 1980s, Zimbabwe turned a problem into an asset, culling 46,775 elephants, while enhancing its reputation as a global leader in conservation, with rapidly expanding wildlife populations and a tourism industry. This requires achieving national consensus around a well-articulated policy that was based on economic, social and environmental goals, and implementing this competently and with integrity.
With the knowledge of hindsight, there is no reason why Botswana cannot do even better.
If Botswana faces momentous decisions about its elephants, it also faces a momentous decision about land use and the cattle industry, in which it has invested so much over so many decades. It can put off these politically difficult decisions. But it can also take the future in hand with carefully considered scenario planning.
The price of agricultural commodities, including beef, will continue to decline, while the volume and price of tourism and wildlife will increase. The incidence of drought and disease are also likely to increase in the face of climate change and global interconnectedness. Thus, the economics of land use would guide Botswana strongly in the direction of resurrecting the amazing wildlife spectacle that my father was so fortunate to witness.
This would provide far more jobs and economic growth than the current policy focus on livestock and agricultural commodity production. However, these decisions are as much cultural as economic. Like land use economics, Botswana’s culture is also going through rapid changes. While their aging parents placed a considerable cultural premium on weekends at cattle posts, most people now live in urban areas, and Botswana’s young people may prefer cell-phones and tourism jobs. Prompted by the elephant crisis, is this now the time to think big and make bold decision about the future of the vast interconnected landscapes of the Kalahari, the Okavango and Chobe?
*Dr Brian Child is an Associate Professor at the University of Florida where he focuses on wildlife economy and governance, and higher education in African leadership development. With a D.Phil from Oxford about the economics of wildlife and livestock, he grew up in Botswana, served private landholders and the CAMPFIRE programme for Zimbabwe Parks for 12 years, and established CBNRM and park management systems in Zambia for 10 years. His current interest is building a $ 30 billion wildlife economy in southern Africa by 2020.
This is the final part of a serialised article made available exclusively to Mmegi.