Blanks fired as hunting season opens

Nearly 190 licences are available for elephants, but thus far only the citizen quota has been allocated. PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
Nearly 190 licences are available for elephants, but thus far only the citizen quota has been allocated. PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES

The excitement around the resumption of hunting in the country is being dampened somewhat. The US Congress is passing a law to block imports of elephant trophies and Botswana’s export quota under CITES may have elapsed. But that’s just the beginning of the troubles. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI writes

As matters stand, few expect commercial activities involving elephants to begin in the recently opened hunting season.

At best, the open licences, which allow local trophy hunting players to bid on behalf of their foreign clients, will be auctioned off next year.

Official Tourism ministry documents show that 72 open licences for elephants are available for foreign trophy hunters, but it is unlikely any activities of this sort will take place this season.

According to an August 27 Government Gazette notice, the open hunting season opened on September 3 and will run till November 30 for most hunting areas, and up to January 31 for others.

Already, the citizen hunting quota, consisting of 86 elephant licences, was raffled off last Friday in dikgotla around Ngamiland, Central District and North East district. Thousands thronged the raffles, with as many as 6,000 people jostling for just eight licences in one kgotla!

The citizen elephant quota is simple to manage for the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, as everything remains within the country. No trophies can be exported and the licences are not transferable.

The open elephant licences however, have suffered one set back after another.

Mmegi is informed that the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which governs exports of trophies, may have pulled the export quota of 400 elephant trophies Botswana has had for years.

The quota is critical as trophy hunters who pay anything up to US$50,000 per hunt, per elephant, are often eager to carry their trophies back home.

“It would appear the CITES quota expired during the years of the hunting moratorium, although everyone locally just assumed it was still in place,” a highly authoritative source close to the latest development told Mmegi recently.

“If that quota has elapsed, Botswana will have to apply to CITES to reinstate it. While CITES is unlikely to say no, they could ask for survey results and evidence to show that hunting will not be detrimental to the species and to show that the elephant population is stable and increasing.

“The surveys are there, but the poaching incidents could raise red flags.”

Another major headache for local Wildlife department officials and the hunting industry are the efforts underway in the US to block the import of trophies from endangered species.

Prior to the hunting moratorium, US trophy hunters accounted for nearly 80% of the market for Botswana and a blockade of trophies there will seriously hurt the local industry.

Known as the CECIL Act (Conserving Ecosystems by Ceasing the Importation of Large Animal Trophies), the legislation is named after ‘Cecil the Lion’ the famous Zimbabwean lion whose shooting by an American hunter triggered global outrage in 2015.

“The Act is aimed at Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe but when the time comes, it will really affect us,” a spokesperson for the Botswana Wildlife Producers Association, Debbie Peake told Mmegi.

“The Act will make it far more difficult for our clients to import their trophies into the US.

“They are trying to shut down the import market which will have a huge impact on what we are trying to do in terms of benefiting the communities.

“The financial burden then will fall again on government and that is punitive for many of these communities (living with elephants).”

Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation and Tourism minister, Kitso Mokaila and several high ranking officials, including the permanent secretary, were in the US a week and a half ago apparently to lobby against the CECIL Act.

Information reaching Mmegi is that the minister and his officials were part of a congressional visit featuring other countries potentially affected by the CECIL Act.

Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority executive technical director, Patience Gandiwa reportedly told the congressional hearing that the Act was not “constructed in the spirit of advancing conservation efforts” and would actively harm those efforts in rural communities where tourism is not a robust or sustainable source of revenue.

Botswana has reportedly engaged US legislative experts to help the country prepare for the possible enactment of the CECIL Act and see how to comply with the more stringent requirements looming.

Even as the events in distant shores complicate the resumption of hunting, local developments are also throwing a spanner in the works, Mmegi has established.

In the weeks since the hunting season kicked off, authoritative government sources, industry insiders and documents collected by Mmegi show that while the political will for resumption of hunting is in place, the five-year break has played havoc with logistical preparations.

According to Wildlife Department officials, commercial trophy hunting will begin with auctions held in each of the six hunting controlled hunting areas specified in a September 4 guideline.

Each of the hunting areas has an allocation of 12 licences up for grabs.

However, no reserve has been set thus far and only the actual licence fees of P20,000 per elephant, are known. The number has triggered misinformed global reports alleging Botswana plans to sell off its elephants for a song as countries like Zimbabwe are auctioning elephant licences for no less than US$21, 000.

“There will be reserve price set for each auction and it could be P150,000 or anything,” a department official told Mmegi.

“At that auction, values can go up to P1.8 million and above.

“Those who win still have to go and pay the P20,000 for the actual licence, before the other protocols required before going into the bush.”

With just 12 licences available per concession and auctioneers likely to bundle these into packages of six each or four at the actual auction, bidding is expected to be aggressively intense leading to high elephant values for government.

“The hunting operators have been waiting for five years for this opportunity and just 12 per hunting area have been allocated,” an insider told Mmegi.

“In each auction, the auctioneer may say ‘let’s group these licences into two batches of six or three batches of four’, because no commercial operator wants just licence.

“The competition will be unbelievable and values of US$200,000 per elephant are possible.

“Even the fact that CITES’ quota may have elapsed or the US import ban won’t dampen that.”

Mokaila himself has mentioned a reserve price of P300,000 in passing, but says nothing has been decided yet. The minister brushes off issues around numbers of both the elephants on offer for trophy hunters and the licence fees.

“The focus this season is on Batswana and that low price (P8,000) is to make sure it is affordable for them,” he says.

“For the open licences, we wanted to start off cautiously and slowly and while CITES allows 400 per year, we were also looking at the number of months left.

“This season, we really want to test the guidelines we have developed for controlled hunting and start off cautiously and steadily to see if we can achieve what we planned for.”

The local wildlife industry, which lobbied hard for the resumption of hunting, will hope the local glitches and external issues are sorted out in time for the prime hunting season next year.

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