The government of President Masisi in Botswana has announced that it will hold a two-month nationwide consultation to review the ban on hunting, notably of elephants.
The ban, introduced by Masisi’s predecessor, Ian Khama, in 2014, has come under increasing criticism from people living in areas with significant wildlife populations and impoverished communities previously reliant on hunting income.
The announcement of the consultation, to be run by the Minister of Local Government and Rural Development, followed a vote in the country’s Parliament on June 22 calling for the government to consider lifting the hunting ban elephants. The motion was put before Parliament by the MP for Maun East, Konstantinos Markus, a member of the governing Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) of President Masisi.
Markus, who was able to get the support of a majority of MPs of all parties for his request for a rethink on the ban, argued that there were several factors necessitating the lifting of the ban, including the increase in Botswana’s elephant population, the growing number of incidents of human/wildlife conflict (elephants destroying crops, water pumps and endangering lives of people in rural areas), the loss to local communities of income from hunting and the failure of photographic tourism to make up for those losses.
He said that the ban contradicted the aims of the country’s Community Based Natural Resources Management (CBNRM) programme, which aims to make conservation contribute to rural development. It is very relevant, according to Debbie Peake of Mochaba Developments, who is one of the most respected voices of the hunting operators in Botswana, that this ministry and not Environment and Tourism is running the consultation, as it should mean that rural livelihoods are at the centre of the debate.
Why was hunting banned
Hunting was banned by former president, Ian Khama in January 2014 after a survey of wildlife suggested that a number of species were declining in northern Botswana, where most sports and commercial hunting occurred. The survey, carried out by Mike Chase of the elephant conservation NGO, Elephants Without Borders, was just about numbers.
There was no study of what had caused the apparent declines in ostrich (down 95%,) wildebeest (90%,), tsessebe (84%) warthogs and kudus (81%,) and giraffes (66%), were there an indication of long-term losses or seasonal variations? With arguments from animal rights NGOs, photographic tourism operators and from Khama’s close friends, wildlife film-makers Derek and Beverley Joubert, Khama and his brother Tshekedi (Minister for Environment and Natural Resources) opted to ban sports and most forms of commercial hunting, blaming them for species decline.
But a study carried out by Joseph Mbaiwa of the Okavango Research Unit, University of Botswana, found that the ban “is not supported by any scientific evidence, and there was no involvement of local communities in the decision-making process.”
When he carried out studies of the effects of the ban, Mbaiwa found most people in areas where hunting had been carried out, it contributed significant sums to local people’s incomes, and that they were opposed to it as they lost money and had seen wildlife damage to crops, water resources and livestock increase when hunting ended. Principal damage was from elephants and lions.
Chief Timex Moalosi, the head of Sankuyo village north of Maun, told me when I met him in Maun in May that his people had lost $600,000 in income after the ban was introduced.
They had been able to sell quotas to hunting operators for 120 animals – including 22 elephants, 55 impalas and nine buffaloes.
He told me after the announcement of the consultation exercise, that he was hopeful that the ban would be lifted and rural people could once more supplement their income with the sale of hunting quotas and the other income streams related to the hunting industry (food, accommodation, employment, transport etc). This view was echoed by Debbie Peake and by a number of professional hunters who had previously worked in Botswana.
They said things were moving in the right direction, but it was not yet clear what form legalised hunting would take and whether it would go back to the old quota system or take another form.
What was important, though, was that if hunting resumed, it made income that would give people an incentive to conserve habitats, rather than have go under the plough or cow because they produced no value to rural communities.
Mbaiwa, in his study said, also, that rural communities had not just lost income, but meat which provided vital protein.
This he said, amounted for the communities researched to 154 tonnes of meat from elephants, 11.7 tonnes of buffalo meat and as well as zebra, kudu, wildebeest, impala and warthog. On an earlier trip to research conservation in Botswana, I was told by a conservationist with the Southern African Sustainable Use Specialist Group (SASUSG), that communities, such as San Bushmen ones along the Kwai River in the Okavango Delta, had lost hundreds of thousands dollars of income, as well as supplies of meat, through the hunting ban.
Why MPs oppose the ban
The combination of lost income, increased conflict with wildlife and increased poaching all weighed on MPs minds when they voted overwhelmingly to call on the government to reconsider the ban.
Markus tabled his motion as a ‘Definite Matter of Urgent Public Importance’, and said this urgency was partly due to the latest figures showing a national elephant population of 237,000, compared with a carrying capacity of 50,000.
He argued that the “expansion of the elephant population in Botswana has impoverished communities, especially those in Boteti, Ngamiland, Chobe or northern Botswana where crop damage and lack of harvest due to elephants is prevalent”. He is just one of a number of MPs from Ngamiland who in the past had criticised the ban as harmful to local communities.
It should be noted that the size of the elephant population is hard to pin down accurately as huge numbers migrate amongst Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Angola. The Great Elephant Census survey carried out in 2014 put the population at 130,451, but the 2012 dry season survey showed 207,545 – Michael Flyman of the Botswana wildlife department told me that the fluctuations were due to migration and seasonal factors, not any decline in overall elephant numbers.
What happens next?
The consultation process, involving the holding of traditional Kgotla meetings (the form of Botswana-originated public meeting, which allows everyone to have their say in influencing and helping leaders come to a decision everyone accepts and supports, and they develop the skills to realise dreams.). It is due to start when the current parliamentary session ends around the end of the first week of August. It will be overseen by a Presidential sub-committee of Cabinet chaired by Local Government and Rural Development Minister, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi.
It is very important that the chair is from the ministry responsible for rural livelihoods rather than the Environment Minister, Tshekedi Khama, one of the chief proponents of the ban and the minister responsible for wildlife and national parks.
One reason may be that the new president, who replaced Ian Khama on April 1, 2018, wants to placate the increasing number of BDP MPs, local councillors and chiefs who say the ban is damaging the livelihoods of people in rural areas and having a bad effect on rural development, and may cost the party rural votes in Ngamiland in elections next year.
It may also be because Tshekedi Khama appeared to attack the motion when it was debated, being quoted as saying to The Monitor newspaper, “Markus’ motion says elephants outside game reserves and national parks should be shot, but what he does not know is that only 32% of the elephant population is inside those parks and reserves”. Adding that Botswana would not look good internationally if it went back to shooting elephants.
In fact, the motion does not call for the killing of elephants outside national parks and reserves, only for the lifting of the hunting ban.
Before the ban, elephants were hunted according to a quota system and there was never any question of all elephants outside protected areas being shot.
Such a confrontational approach means Botswana may witness very heated debate in the coming months as the government weighs up whether to lift the ban to meet popular demand and economic reality or whether the Khama factor will still weigh heavily on the decision.
PROFESSOR KEITH SOMERVILLE
*Mmegi reproduces this article with the express permission of its author, Professor Keith Somerville of the Centre for Journalism, University of Kent. Professor Somerville is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent, Fellow of the Zoological Society of London and Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is also the Editor of Africa Sustainable Conservation News