Trophy hunting of elephants in Botswana has no place in conservation: A reply to Tony Weaver
Ross Harvey
22 October 2019

Tony Weaver has defended Botswana’s decision to reintroduce trophy hunting. 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.’ This is despite the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) having now declared that the practice is incompatible with ‘sustainable use’ and the quest for a just and sustainable world. Weaver offers little scientific evidence to support his views, possibly because most of the science around hunting says that it can only work ‘provided it is well governed’. In other words, only in Utopia.

Weaver begins by labelling critics of the decision as non-Motswana. Many tourism operators and NGOs working in Botswana do not support elephant trophy hunting, however along with their Namibian and Tanzanian counterparts, they are reluctant to say so in public for fear of losing their research permits.

A common justification for hunting is that Botswana has too many elephants that have exceeded the landscape’s ‘carrying capacity’. A number of globally-acclaimed elephant experts have written a compelling letter to President Masisi that refutes this claim. A recent scientific journal article similarly debunks this argument.

Weaver’s contention that “the ban has had a devastating effect on rural communities ‘living daily with human-wildlife conflict’ and resulted in a collapse ‘in some more than 40% of micro-GDP’ is not an argument in favour of reintroducing trophy hunting. The way in which the moratorium was imposed was clearly problematic and created resentment among some rural communities.  Reduction in income is not an automatic argument in favour of reintroducing hunting, especially if the economic opportunity costs and genetic loss of big tuskers) of such a decision have been ignored.  

Namibia’s conservation model is lauded as the inspiration for Masisi’s decision. Weaver quotes Phomamba Shifeta, Namibia’s Minister of Environment and Tourism. Shifeta claims that hunting accounts for the success of communal conservancies as it provides livelihoods for communities. But does it?

While it may be true that hunting provides livelihoods for some 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.  Presumably he was referring to the hunting of Voortrekker, one of the last remaining bulls of the unique southern desert elephants. 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.’ But a number of communities protested against the permit. Unfortunately for Shifeta, these are hardly isolated incidents. The global hunting fraternity has struggled to crowd out the bad apples.

Invariably, even the best scientific defenses of hunting attach heavy caveats that it can only work if well governed. But the problem with the caveats is that they can’t be realised. It is fundamentally incentive-incompatible with the very nature of trophy hunting in open systems.

Originally published in Afrikaans: