Locals need greater ownership of wildlife tourism, or hunting lobby wins

Dr. Steve Boyes poling a mokoro in the Okavango Delta on a National Geographic Expedition PIC. THALEFANG CHARLES
Dr. Steve Boyes poling a mokoro in the Okavango Delta on a National Geographic Expedition PIC. THALEFANG CHARLES

This motion is simply the hunting lobby in Botswana testing the new administration. Botswana is now known as the country with the largest elephant population in the world, and that is something to be very proud of. Megafauna like elephants, hippo, whales, dugongs, polar bears, big cats, pandas and rhino are disappearing everywhere they exist except Botswana.

Replies to the MPs reasons for the ban:

Increase in elephant population;

Having the world’s largest elephant population is something to be proud of. Over the last 50 years almost two-thirds of all wildlife has disappeared due to hunting, habitat destruction, and human-wildlife conflict. Botswana has provided a new model for how we can value, celebrate and protect wildlife.

Other countries have large, unexploited diamond reserves, but only Botswana has the Okavango Delta, Chobe, Mashatu, CKGR and some of the most pristine wildernesses in the world.

In politics, we are very bad at looking beyond the five-year election cycle and make decisions that would help and support our grand-children. Let’s try… In 50 year’s time, the most important resource on Earth will be freshwater, and countries with intact wildlife populations and megafauna will be as rare as diamonds, and just as valuable as a national asset.


Human/Wildlife conflict

Human wildlife conflict is a relative term and, in this context, must be understood from the perspective of both people and wildlife. Modern human beings and elephants have been co-existing in Botswana for millennia with human-wildlife conflict only becoming a problem as we started to leave the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and become more sedentary, farming and tending to our livestock.

The Wayeyi people have lived in the Okavango Delta, where Maun East MP Mr Kostantinos Markus comes from, for almost 250 years. They used to grow crops, hunt, gather and burn in the centre of the delta, learning how to interact with wildlife, including elephants.

This was a subsistence lifestyle that had thousands of Wayeyi co-existing sustainably with wildlife. A subsistence lifestyle is about survival, which results in small agricultural plots and goat herds being farmed intensively – you do not want all your “eggs in one basket”. If an elephant eats your crops or lions eat your goats, you are dependent on the charity of your neighbour. So, we were VERY careful when farming in the heart of the Okavango Delta with tens of thousands of elephants around.

Today, farming and cattle are about making and saving money, so we have bigger commercial farms and larger herds of cattle and goats that we are less able to care for and protect as if our lives depended on it. Fewer people are farming much larger pieces of land to produce far more than they need on marginal land, converting large tracts of natural habitat for elephants and inviting them into unattended fields to plunder.

As has been demonstrated many, many times, human-wildlife conflict, especially with elephants, is about inadequate crop protection and animal husbandry fuelled by the overarching desire to make a profit. But, how do we subsidise farmers, so that they can still make a profit off smaller, well-tended farms? The solution is to radically change the tourism industry in Botswana.


Less local benefits from tourism

I completely agree. For too long, large safari companies, who are profit-driven as well, have used lucrative lodges in Botswana, in the Okavango Delta and Chobe, to subsidise marginal lodges and camps in nearby countries like Zambia and Zimbabwe. They do this to grow their business by attracting new investment and accessing additional forex. More of these profits from this premier lodges, camps and hotels in northern Botswana should come back to local municipalities, community trust, businesses and people.

The high value, low volume model must not be changed in these core wilderness areas, but ownership models, whether that be state ownership or local communities, must change. The big safari companies will tell you that an elephant is worth $50,000 shot dead by a hunter and millions if photographed repeatedly by tourists. This is true, but very, very little of those millions make it local communities.

The safari operators have foundations that support schools, water access, conservation efforts, etc., but are certainly not sharing as much of their profits as they should. I am not saying we should make it non-viable for these large, successful safari companies to operate in northern Botswana, but if you look at ownership, there are very few black Batswana owners and shareholders. Safari companies must help elephants and the other wildlife they make their money off pay for themselves in this new world.  Simply protecting this wildlife is good, but could be viewed by local people as self-serving if they do not see any benefit. Things must change. Fences and fines do not work. Shooting poachers does not work. Local communities need to feel more ownership of the wildlife tourism industry in Botswana or it will succumb to a hunting and cattle lobby.

There is no doubt in my mind that the income generated by elephants in Botswana can for the mitigation of human-wildlife conflict ten-fold. These revenues are just not being shared with the elephants, who, I am sure, would willingly give all of it to the local communities they co-exist with. Imagine being a local farmer that has never been to Maun airport and, therefore, never seen a tourist or any direct benefit from tourism.

What would you do if your crop was destroyed by elephants? Not only do you see little benefit from tourism, but now you have lost your profit that was going to send your children to university.  


Less benefits from photographic tourism

This just shows that what is happening here is the Botswana hunting lobby testing the new administration, nothing more. The statistics speak for themselves. Photographic tourism earns more for Botswana, hires more people throughout the year, has more Batswana in upper management, attracts more international tourists and accolades, etc., etc.



*Dr Steve Boyes is a conservationist and National Geographic explorer who has dedicated his life to preserving Africa’s wilderness areas and the species that depend upon them. He has led National Geographic biodiversity expeditions across the entire Okavango River basin to promote broader protection for the watershed and its wildlife

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