Botswana's move towards lifting a four year-old hunting ban sparked a global outcry, with particularly the West, expressing serious misgivings. Some tourists from Western countries have even threatened to boycott visiting Botswana over the matter.
The southern African country is home to more than 130,000 elephants, the largest concentration on the continent, a number that was putting increasing pressure on the ecosystem.
The human-wildlife conflict has been on the rise, but Botswana's tourism industry has been booming as a result of its renowned conservation programmes. Tourism is Botswana's second largest foreign currency earner, behind diamond mining.
However, the ballooning wildlife numbers posed a threat to human life, with official statistics indicating that 36 people were trampled to death by elephants in the last decade. Between February 2018 to date, 14 deaths and several injuries have been recorded.
Elephants encroach into communities, killing people and destroying crops, in the process impoverishing the rural folk.
Botswana's Department of Wildlife and National Parks reported that human-wildlife conflicts rose from 4,361 in 2012 to 6,770 in 2014. The government now has to find ways to balance between protecting the wildlife and ensuring that it does not step on wrong toes through culling of wild animals.
The final report
Former President Ian Khama introduced a hunting ban in 2014, arguing it would protect the animals and safeguard the tourism industry. That came amid reports that the elephant population was decreasing overall on the continent, although there was a rise in Botswana's numbers.
When Mr Khama’s successor Mokgweetsi Masisi took over power in 2018, he immediately ordered a consultative review of the ban, with a Cabinet sub-committee tasked with conducting countrywide public hearings on the matter.
On February 22, 2019, the ministerial committee submitted the final report to President Masisi, which, among others, proposes lifting the ban on trophy hunting, the culling of elephants and that fences be erected to control wildlife migration.
While President Masisi said the report would be interrogated further, the West was already outraged by the proposed lifting of the ban.
“I can promise you and the nation that we will consider it. A white paper will follow and it will be shared with the public.
“If need be, we will give an opportunity to parliament to also interrogate it, and also allow them the space to intervene before we make a final determination,” President Masisi said when he received the report.
Botswana's conservationist Dereck Joubert, who runs a safari camp in the vast Okavango Delta, was quick to criticise attempts to lift the ban.
“At first, I thought it was a cruel April Fools' Day announcement, but no one is laughing today. I have given this white paper a name and if it passes I believe it should be called 'Botswana's Blood Law',” he wrote on his Facebook page.
“Unsurprisingly, we oppose and protest these suggested changes to the law.”
Despite the uproar, President Masisi said the best decision for the people of Botswana would be taken.
“Where do they get the guts to tell us how we should take care of our wildlife when they do not have anything? I was in England, where I told them that their problem was they are talking about elephant issues as if there are no people (in Botswana). I said to them that we will give you 200 elephants in England and just let them roam all over (just) as you want them to in Botswana,” President Masisi said during a recent meeting of his ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP).
“They think we are stupid when we have our people terrorised by these animals in areas they are not even supposed to be.”
President Masisi was irked by reports that Western countries were even mulling boycotting Botswana's tourism, due to the proposed hunting ban.
He clarified that the intention of lifting the ban was not about killing elephants.
“I run a consultative government. We have a problem with human wildlife conflict. I never said we will go all out and kill all elephants in Botswana. We are under attack and these people are acting in concert with some Batswana. It is sad. I am not going to be intimidated while wildlife kill our people,” President Masisi said.
Prominent human rights lawyer Uyapo Ndadi warns the issue must be handled carefully to protect the country’s tourism sector.
“The issue of Botswana elephants requires serious and coordinated PR, our messages must not be reckless for it is a sensitive issue. We may find ourselves vulnerable internationally and our tourism will suffer if we don’t handle the issue properly,” Mr Ndadi said.
A number of locals, working for safari companies lost their jobs when the hunting ban came into effect.
Safari hunting provided economic benefits to many rural communities, which is why the majority of people living in wildlife rich areas such as the Okavango and Chobe told the ministerial committee to lift the ban.
A 2017 report on the impact of the ban, titled: Hunting Ban- The Aftermath, indicated that rural community trusts had lost $700,000 (P7 million) in just 12 months due to the hunting ban. The report also revealed that nearly 200 jobs in the safari hunting industry had been lost as a result.
Mr Khama has maintained that he was justified in imposing the hunting ban in order to protect wildlife.
“The hunting ban was imposed to address a situation whereby we found that we were having a decline in animal populations.
“And because tourism is so vital to this economy and to employment creation, and we know that our tourism is mostly wildlife-based in Botswana,” Mr Khama recently told the local media.
With opinion on the matter divided, President Masisi faces a litmus, balancing act.
Whatever decision on the hunting ban, there was likely to be backlash, with local communities keen to see it lifted, while the influential West wants the status quo to remain.