Trophy hunting of Elephants in Botswana has no place in conservation
Ross Harvey
14th November 2019

Tony Weaver has defended Botswana President, Mokgweetsi Masisi, who decided to reintroduce trophy hunting to that country ahead of the upcoming October election. Weaver writes that, personally, he doesn’t ‘quite understand what motivates hunters’, but intellectually, he fully supports it ‘as a critical conservation tool for preserving Africa’s wildlife and wild places’. Here’s my response.

Curiously, I see no substantiation of these claims; not a single appeal to scientific evidence. This is quite likely because there is, in reality, no strong evidence that supports trophy hunting as a superior conservation tool to its alternatives or that doesn’t possess the usual disclaimer “provided it is well governed”. It is surely incumbent on a self-professed intellectual to defend one’s views with at least some evidence.

I examine some of the claims advanced by Weaver below and respond with science.

First, he dismisses critics of the decision to lift the hunting moratorium as non-Motswana. Curiously, most reputable wildlife conservation NGOs working in Botswana do not support elephant trophy hunting. Along with their Namibian counterparts, they are reluctant to say so in public for fear of having their research permits removed.

Those which dare to raise their concerns are publicly vilified. One high-profile tourist operator was threatened with having his concession removed, while the Minister of Tourism reminded the Hospitality and Tourism Association of Botswana to “remember where your bread is buttered” and to support the government’s decision. So much for Masisi being a democrat.

Moreover, the nationality of a critic is hardly grounds on which to dismiss their arguments. One justification commonly presented for hunting (by non-Motswana’s such as Thompson and Martin) is that Botswana has too many elephants that have exceeded the landscape’s “carrying capacity”.

A number of globally acclaimed elephant experts, however, have written a compelling letter to President Masisi that refutes this claim. They make the case for appropriate land use planning as a means of reducing human and elephant conflict rather than hunting (previously proposed by some scientists as an instrument of fear).

Second, the sweeping and speculative claim that the ban has had a devastating effect on rural communities “living daily with human-wildlife conflict and a collapse “in some more than 40% of micro-GDP” is not an argument in favour of reintroducing trophy hunting.

Weaver blames the ban for a collapse in rural income, but this is confusing the object of concern. The way in which the moratorium was imposed was clearly problematic and created resentment among some rural communities who had to suddenly make do without bush meat and revenue they had previously received. This does not mean trophy hunting is the answer; it means the process by which the ban was implemented was flawed.

Appropriate land-use planning (long in advance of the ban) would have been preferable. This would include dedicated migratory corridors of the type currently under construction in Ngamiland, which aid elephant dispersal and increase the probability of amicable human-elephant coexistence.

Moreover, conservation areas that were not amenable to switching to photographic-based tourism could have been converted to self-drive tourism and/or mobile camp concessions. The government precluded this option, insisting on photographic lodges or nothing. Self-drive tourism facilities would have generated revenue and ensured counter-poaching presence.

Hunting is too often promoted as a quick fix in the absence of serious land-use planning alternatives. The real source of human-elephant conflict is not elephant overpopulation, it is conflict over resources (increasingly scarce in the drought). Conflict occurs primarily because dedicated migratory corridors, alongside appropriate conservation agriculture, have not yet been sufficiently replicated and scaled up.

Finally, it is not clear where Weaver derives his figure of “40% of micro GDP” from, or what he even means by that term in this context. If there has been a 40% reduction in revenue to communities that previously benefited from hunting, these figures need to be publicly presented and debated. Reduction in income is not an automatic argument in favour of reintroducing hunting, especially if the opportunity costs (negative impact on photographic tourism and genetic loss of big tuskers) of such a decision have been ignored. Weaver’s implication that all rural communities were negatively affected is irresponsible; it ignores the fact that tourism (in the absence of hunting) has grown substantially since 2013. International tourism receipts as a percentage of total exports increased from 6.4% in 2013 to 10.1% in 2017, which has greatly benefited many local communities.

Third, Weaver lauds Namibia’s conservation model as the inspiration for Masisi’s reversion decision. Interestingly, he quotes that country’s Minister of Environment and Tourism, Pohamba Shifeta. Shifeta claims hunting is at the heart of the success of communal conservancies as it a) provides livelihoods for communities, b) encourages the protection of wildlife populations and c) maintains ecosystem health. I address each of these in turn:

While it may be true that, in some cases, hunting provides livelihoods for local communities, it is not clear that hunting will serve those communities best in the long run. Shifeta himself admits to corruption, “blatant theft and self-enrichment”, though he insists these are isolated cases. He also recognises that reckless and irresponsible acts of hunting can be highly damaging. Presumably he was referring to the hunting of Voortrekker, one of the last remaining bulls of the unique southern desert elephants.

That was indeed a monumental stuff-up, as the government issued the permit for Voortrekker to be shot as a “problem animal”, though it turned out he clearly wasn’t. Weaver’s analysis of that situation was that the problem was that the elephant had a name, which gave ammo to “animal rightists”. What a shallow dismissal of a serious problem. Moreover, a number of communities protested against issuing such a permit. So much for rural conservancies benefiting from hunting.

Unfortunately for Shifeta, these are hardly isolated incidents, and the global hunting fraternity has notoriously struggled to crowd out the bad apples from within their midst. This is clearly true for Botswana too, as the original 2014 hunting moratorium was imposed because of the notoriety of corruption within the industry. Similarly, hunters in Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve boasted about their ability to bribe local officials to attain concessions. Their presence neither helped local communities nor prevented poaching.

This is clearly why Shifeta stated that better management controls were being put in place in Namibia. But one must ask why the industry appears so inherently susceptible to corruption in the first instance. Could it be that it is riddled by a collective action problem in which the incentive to cheat is always stronger than the incentive to comply with the rules (assuming, for now, that the rules are even scientifically informed, which is hardly ever the case)?

It remains unclear how the selective targeting of the biggest tusks or the best manes encourages the protection of wildlife populations. Science is increasingly clear that male elephants become increasingly reproductively successful towards the end of their lives, and their tusk size grows exponentially with age. They also teach young bulls how to avoid becoming juvenile delinquents by suppressing early musth onset. Moreover, these are the same bulls that tourists pay top dollar to photograph. The opportunity costs of hunting are therefore significant. Similarly, hunting regulations suggest that male lions should only be shot once they are past their reproductive prime. But one only has to frequent the news every few weeks to read of yet another prime male having been shot.

A case in point is Seduli, shot on the outskirts of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe on World Lion Day this year. He joins the ranks of 19 others shot in the past decade, including Cecil and his son Xanda. Or take the Skye debacle in South Africa, a cover-up crime where the lion was baited and allegedly illegally shot. Removing pride males at this rate exacerbates lion decline in the wild rapidly, as incoming males practice infanticide against the previous male’s cubs. With fewer lions than rhinos estimated in the wild, how can this possibly be justified as protecting wildlife populations?

Finally, how does hunting maintain ecosystem health? At best, indirectly – land that may otherwise be converted to agriculture remains a wilderness landscape. But this land may well be converted to photographic or self-drive concessions that provide space to migratory species like lions and elephants. We have to stop this ridiculous dichotomy that it’s hunting or agriculture. The other argument – offered by the likes of Ron Thomson and Rowan Martin – is that “too many elephants” (itself a convenient fallacy) destroy trees and therefore the ecosystem collapses. Hunting, of course, is the required solution in their books.

The latest science, however, utterly ridicules this notion. In a comprehensive forthcoming review article, Michelle Henley and Robin Cook evaluated past strategies that directly reduced elephant numbers to protect large trees. They found that “maintaining elephant numbers at pre-determined carrying capacity level did not prevent the loss of large trees”. In other words, elephant population numbers are not the problem – the way in which elephants interact with trees is complex and the solution to large tree loss is hardly to remove elephants. Avoiding fencing and providing more space in which elephants can freely roam is far more likely to aid natural ecosystem integrity with all its associated benefits.

Trophy hunting to manage numbers is hardly an ecologically sound solution to a problem that has other roots: “[H]unting is a highly selective activity, as bulls of particular age categories and with sought-after physical traits are targeted. For these reasons, hunting has not been listed as a population control method as it could result in undesirable skewed sex ratios and age structures within populations.”

I encourage Weaver to read the science and critically engage with the material that attempts to justify trophy hunting. It would also be more honest to avoid pretending to be an expert after attending one meeting in Gaborone. Appeals to authority – “every conservationist I know” – betray Weaver’s lack of rigour. It’s easy to dismiss people as “armchair conservationists” while masquerading under the banner of intellectualism. Invariably, even the best scientific defences of hunting attach heavy caveats that it can only work for conservation if well-governed. But the problem with the caveat is that it can’t be achieved. It appears to be fundamentally incentive-incompatible with the very nature of trophy hunting. 

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