Botswana’s Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism announced that “the government of Botswana has taken a decision to lift the hunting suspension.”
The country’s new president, Dr Mokgweetsi Masisi, recently received in Kasane for five southern African heads of state whose countries are home to roughly half the world’s remaining elephant population, with an aim to forge a common strategy for elephant conservation in the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA). The strategy does not explicitly mention hunting, but it paves the way for justifying it.
Under the pretext of ‘consumptive use’ – the idea that an animal will only be conserved if it is hunted or its parts are traded for cash – hunting was defended at the Kasane Conference as a silver bullet for elephant conservation. Speakers and ministers expounded myths that the world – and most African Elephant range states – have largely abandoned it.
Kitso Mokaila, Botswana’s Minister of Environment and Tourism, claimed that elephant population has surged to 160,000, from 55,000 in 1991, claiming that there are ‘too many elephants.’
In 1983, Botswana’s elephant population numbered between 70,000 and 75,000. It had certainly not dropped to 55,000 by 1991.
The minister may have done well to consult the scientific reports of Northern Botswana, which estimates the population to be roughly 126,114. However the number doesn’t differ from the 2014 figure, indicating the population is stable, but not growing.
A second myth: Botswana has exceeded its ‘carrying capacity’ of 54,000 elephants. This has become an expedient cover under which to justify elephant trophy hunting and even culling. The entire concept of ‘carrying capacity’ is arbitrary without relevance for vast, unfenced wilderness landscapes that adapt and maintain integrity without human intervention.
“Much of the research community, and many managers, accept that ecosystem structure and function are not about elephant numbers but instead about elephant distribution across a landscape and in relation to plant communities” scholars Phyllis Lee, Keith Lindsay and Katarzyna Nowak explain.
A large number of scientists wrote in Ambio that they did not see “any ecological reason to artificially change the number of elephants in Chobe National Park, either through culling or opening new dry season ranges.”
What matters is not “carrying capacity” but dispersion and concentration. A high density of elephants in one area may prove to result in some ‘undesirable’ vegetation transformation, which is a good reason for keeping migratory corridors open without fences.
Even where apparent vegetation transformation occurs, however, the ecological benefits of keeping elephants as keystone herbivores should never be underestimated. They deposit seeds up to 90 km away from areas in which they feed, regenerating vegetation elsewhere and creating corridors for other animals to use.
A myth of hunting to solve the “population explosion problem” is ignoring that the population is stable – and potentially in decline. The truth is that hunting only decimates the big tuskers, reducing genetic diversity.
Trophy hunting is typically rationalised on the grounds that it only eliminates old bulls that are ‘surplus’ to herd requirements. Such small-scale elimination is, however, incapable of controlling an ‘exploding’ population, especially given that Botswana’s annual export quota was only ever between 420 and 800 elephants in the decade preceding the moratorium.
Moreover, there is no such thing as ‘surplus’ bull elephants. Dr Michelle Henley writes that “in the past, bulls over 50 years of age were considered redundant but more recent studies have found that bulls do not reach their sexual prime until they are over 45 years old.”
She also notes that older bulls, because they have protracted musth cycles, “often suppress the musth cycles of younger bulls, thereby maintaining social stability and lowering younger bulls’ aggression towards other species such as rhinoceros.”
They are thus critical for ensuring functional herd sociology, transferring knowledge and disciplining delinquent behaviour among juvenile males.
Hunting is a fundamentally unsustainable, as the incentives are loaded in favour of over-consumption and rule-breaking.
“Anyone who knows anything about hunting cannot honestly claim that a hunter, tracking a trophy bull with his client, upon finding a young bull carrying large tusks, would try to dissuade his client from shooting it”, a Botswana veteran Mike Gunn said.
Hunting quotas tend to be arbitrarily determined by the hunters themselves and over-exploited, which violates the ‘maximum sustainable yield’ principle.
Hunting will therefore never solve a population problem, but it does destroy herd sociology and ensures that big tuskers are being shot out.
In this respect, hunters are aiding the poachers – undermining, not supporting, conservation.
Bringing back hunting will solve human and elephant conflict (HEC) and increase benefits to local communities has proven to be wrong.
The fact is that hunting would only solve HEC if it were able to keep elephants within protected areas and reduce the scarcity of resources, such as water, especially during prolonged drought.
Part of the argument is that hunting generates revenue that accrues directly to local communities and thus disincentives both poaching and the killing of errant crop-raiders. Ironically, however, hunting is rooted in a colonial anthropology that castigated indigenous people groups as ‘poachers’ and colonialists as ‘hunter-conservationists’.