Tackling the elephant in the room

Elephant maize field in Masai Mara PIC - usaid.com
Elephant maize field in Masai Mara PIC - usaid.com

At least 230,000 elephants are crammed in the country's wild, many of them fugitives from neighbouring countries lured across by a four-year-old hunting ban that has made Botswana the final sanctuary for the gentle giants. However, as their numbers have risen, the sanctuary, originally built to accommodate 50,000 elephants, has reached its breaking point. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI reports

Take the emotion out of it and consider it properly, Environment Minister, Tshekedi Khama says of the debate on whether to lift the hunting ban specifically on elephants.

His words are water off a duck’s back for the thousands of Batswana affected annually by elephants trampling their crops, destroying agricultural infrastructure and decimating natural resources.

“Maloba ke fa tlou e tlhasetse stand pipe ka fa Kweneng kafa, e diga gotlhe le dijojo mo merakeng e e koo, e senya.

“Ditlou tse di tletseng mo ga rona tse, di tswa kwa mafatsheng a go neng go lowa thata jaaka Angola ka nako ya the civil wars tsa koo. Di ne tsa tsena mo go rona, di utlwa go le bodutu, go le thokgamo, di sa fulwe, di tsamaya gongwe le gongwe, jaanong di a anama.”

Maun West legislator, Kgosi Tawana Moremi is contributing to an eventually successful Parliament motion to lift the ban on hunting elephants. Maun West is one of numerous places in the north and north west badly impacted by the explosion in elephant numbers since the institution of the hunting ban in 2014.

Protected by the ban, elephants from across the region have trekked to the protection of Botswana, where numbers have ballooned to approximately 237,000 against a “carrying capacity” of 50,000. The population of elephants in Botswana represents approximately 34% of Africa’s total elephant population, a number that rises every year with birth rates eclipsing natural mortality.

As the elephants have fought for nourishment, they have foraged further away from their crowded natural habitats, frequently coming into contact with farming activities and turning up in places where they have never been seen before. Last May, an elephant turned up in Phakalane, causing a stir, while the beasts have also been spotted in the far south and east, areas where they have never been seen before.

Between June 28 and July 24, ordinary villagers, hunters, conservationists, game ranchers and other stakeholders will have the opportunity to weigh in on the debate around elephants at four meetings to be held in Nata, Selebi-Phikwe, Kasane and Maun.

The four regions roughly represent the areas most affected by marauding elephants and have the most to say about the hunting ban. The regions include farmers in Parakarungu and Mababe who, according to Kosta Markus, saw their 2016 maize harvest drop from an expected 7, 128 bags to 1,991 bags, while sorghum dropped from an expected 950 bags to just 375.

Markus, the Maun East MP, who moved the recent motion, quotes a local farmer as saying: “Since that devil called elephant came to our land, no one has ever harvested here in Khumaga.

We are dying of hunger because (of) elephants crop raiding. We have grown without that creature on our land. Since it came we are always afraid and scared of walking on our land”.

Markus says in Maun East, people are scared of herding their cattle as they may expose themselves to elephant attacks.

Besides the impact on farming and the danger to life and limb, the hunting ban has slashed the incomes communities used to earn from trophy hunting.

According to Markus’ data, Community Based Organisations (CBOs) or Community Based Natural Resources Management (CBNRM) programmes went from earning P11.3 million in revenues from hunting, to P5.6 million in 2015.

Thousands have lost their jobs and the avenues for earning a living have narrowed, leaving villagers fighting the temptation to physically tackle the “elephant in the room,” which could yield not only meat, but also quick revenues and safer environs.

Not so fast, says Khama. The minister says while on the face of it, reinstating the hunting of elephants seems like the natural solution to the problems communities are facing, the issue is far more complex.

“Markus’ motion wants the hunting of elephants outside game reserves and national parks, but what he does not know is that only 32% of the population of elephants is in those reserves and parks,” Khama says.

“Adopting that motion would mean shooting a lot of them and that’s not a reputation Botswana would want internationally. Even domestically, how do you manage that? You need to manage those consequences.” As the debate gets underway, Khama says the argument around hunting revenues is shaky, as the distaste for animal products of that nature sweeps across the world, limiting the realisation of value.

“The traditional markets are not buying any more. Thank God things are not what they used to be. The value of that trophy is not what it used to be.”

The minister says the review should look at affected regions and livelihoods in a “considered manner” without “emotions taking over”. The upcoming meetings are unlikely to be without emotion, however.

“We must never fail and avoid doing the right thing because we are afraid of something that is negative. Life is always an issue of balancing; in this case, conservation and livelihoods,” says Bonnington South MP, Ndaba Gaolathe.

Editor's Comment
Not yet uhuru

The SoE has been in place for close to 18 months as a measure to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.Despite the uncertainties that the end of SoE bring, many people are happy that government has finally seen it fit not to extend it.But, sorry to burst your bubble, the pandemic won’t be over until our nation and the rest of the world have reached herd immunity. We must know that we are not out of the woods yet. This simply means that we can’t be...

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