Elephants in Botswana

Stephen Wiggins Article 3 Comments

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Petition – “Don’t shoot Africa’s last elephants” Care2 Save Elephants

This past week, we have had the Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT, 2018) conference in London. The third party reports seen from attendees at IWT 2018 reinforces the message that for any given persecuted species, such as the African elephant, every life is precious – as elephants are slaughtered daily by illegal poachers seeking to cash in on the seemingly insatiable Asian demand for ivory.

Update: “New research measures impacts of China’s elephant ivory trade ban,” Mongabay, 23 October 2018

Duke of Cambridge (Prince William) – United for Wildlife (The Royal Foundation) at the IWT conference

The Duke of Cambridge (Prince William) announced at IWT the convening of the Wildlife Financial Taskforce, as a new element in the Duke’s United for Wildlife fight against wildlife trafficking. The new taskforce’s objective is to help identify, trace and combat the illicit funds garnered from illegal wildlife trafficking, filtered and laundered through legitimate financial mechanisms.

However, the sheer contradiction, dichotomy and confusion with regard to the conservation of a threatened species, such as elephants was apparent when it was reported today that the “Duke of Cambridge backs trophy hunting in Botswana, says president” (Ben Webster, The Times, 13 October 2018).


“President Masisi said Prince William diplomatically indicated there might be a conservation case for hunting” – Dominic Lipinski/WPA/Getty Images – Duke of Cambridge backs trophy hunting in Botswana, says president,” Ben Webster, The Times, 13 October 2018

How can the Duke of Cambridge on the one hand decry the illicit slaughter of elephants by poachers and criminal syndicates to profit from ivory, but on the other hand allegedly endorse the mooted potential slaughter/culling of elephant families by hunters for trophies in Bostwana? Of course the former is illegal, the latter ‘legal’ – so what’s the problem?

Upon reviewing Ben Webster’s one-on-one interview at IWT 2018 with His Excellency the President Mokgweetsi EK Masisi of Botswana, the confusion/paradox is transparent.


His Excellency The President Mokgweetsi E.K. Masisi being interviewed by Mr Ben Webster, Environmental Editor of The Times, 12 October 2018

The interview is some 30 minutes plus long, but enlightening for the following key points:

  • For many potential reasons, Botswana has become home to an estimated 160,000 – 170,000 migratory elephants (when the estimated continent wide elephant population is some 350,000 – 450,000 elephants, so Botswana is currently home to potentially some 35% – 50% of the whole wild African elephant population);
  • President Masisi highlighted that Botswana has some 42% of its land dedicated to wildlife reserves. However, some 60% or more of Botswana’s current elephant population resides outside of the reserves, bringing elephants into daily conflict with the people of Botswana – their daily lives (and the tragic loss of human life), their farming, their infrastructure, bringing down fences and allowing other wildlife to bring disease into cattle herds, consuming limited resources such as water during the dry season etc.;
  • For these reasons, President Masisi says the elephants that are off the reservations need a “diverse strategy” to manage and mitigate the escalating conflict for the ‘benefit’ of all concerned.


Let’s look at the reasons elephants have expanded their ranges in Botswana with Dr Mike Chase, Elephants Without Borders (EWB):

i. Density dependent dispersal – search for food,

ii. Failure of the Kavango-Zambezi TFCA. Poaching and habitat constriction in southern Angola, Zambia and along Botswana’s borders have restricted elephants to remain in the safety of Botswana,

iii. Water availability in the form of artificial water and recent flooding events in previously dry rivers have enticed elephant to move further south, and

iv. Vet fences are effective barriers to elephant movements, but many of them have not been maintained and long stretches are broken giving elephants access to new areas.

In all likelihood, the reintroduction of trophy hunting will have no impact on any of these factors as they are unrelated to the ban on trophy hunting in 2014” – “Arguments for lifting the ban are unsound,” Dr Mike Chase, Elephants Without Borders (EWB), Mmegi-online, 6 July 2018

So, there is undoubtedly a problem, but where is the joined up thinking regarding the elephant species on a continent wide basis?

  • President Masisi explained that due to the [elephant] “crisis” [causing human suffering] in Bostwana, translocations of elephants to countries with dwindling elephant herds (such as Mozambique, where elephants await a dubious fate) could be accommodated in Botswana’s “diverse strategy” – but Botswana would not seek to profit from the redistribution of “their natural resource [the elephants]” (sic), but donate elephants to such causes – with the recipient country, or donations/NGOs no doubt  funding the translocation costs;
  • However, hunting/culling entire “elephant families” [no numbers/quota given] that now reside in close proximity to Botswana’s populations was also clearly proposed as part of President Masisi’s “diverse strategy” to deal with the “crisis” – most likely because culling provides a potentially expedient and potentially profitable way to eliminate [execute] ‘problem’ elephant families, co-ordinated through communal hunting concessions that would profit the local populous and simultaneously allow trophy hunters to satisfy their ‘needs.’ Well not exactly, because there may be restriction imposed on the export of the resulting ivory – President Masisi clearly does not want to be accused of promoting ivory worship and the potential pseudo-hunting of Botswana’s elephants to obtain ivory now does he (?) – so will the theoretical resulting ivory be crushed/burnt, or stockpiled/sold regardless?;
  • However, how does this proposed hunting/culling of ‘problem elephant families’ fit with any larger picture of continent wide elephant conservation? Well, it doesn’t because at the current rate of elephant attrition, continent wide elephant numbers are only set to decline (The Great Elephant Census, 2016). So can such culling/hunting be called ‘conservation’ of the species as a whole? Clearly no – the culling/hunting is just a way to make an elephant problem in one country go away whilst making some money from the “sustainable [elephant] resource” (sic) that has “intelligently” sought (though temporary it seems) potential peace and respite in Botswana;
  • At this point, the interviewer, Ben Webster (The Times, Environment Editor) started comparing such an elephant cull/kill approach to the United Kingdom’s ‘issues’ with badgers – whereby Ben Webster asserted that badgers were carrying a disease (tuberculosis (tb)) and infecting UK farmers’ cattle – however, Ben Webster seemed to gloss over the lack of supporting science for the mass, random culling of badgers as an effective solution (the mass inoculation/vaccination of badgers (and cattle when a vaccination materialise) against tb, plus more restricted transfers of cattle being a more humane and potentially cost effective solution of course).


  • It is not clear in what context the Duke of Cambridge has allegedly endorsed the trophy hunting of elephants in Botswana – perhaps in a wider “diverse strategy,” perhaps not. In the interview, President Masisi suggests that the Duke of Cambridge gave tacit support for such action using “diplomatic language;
  • Regardless of the “diplomatic language” that was used, there is a clear dichotomy between one as high profile as the Duke of Cambridge stating that every action must be taken to eradicate the illegal poaching of elephants, but at the same time (allegedly) giving tacit support to the culling/hunting of the ‘same’ elephants as a convenience. I thought the message was that every elephant life was precious, or does that only apply to wild elephant families that somehow know what the humans’ set rules and etiquette dictate? Their fault for being elephants I suppose and doing what elephants do;
  • Surely, if the idea of conservation is to save the elephant species as a whole, then macro management by the hunting/killing of elephants as a convenience does not fit within any continent wide strategy/vision for conservation.

President Masisi has stated that the people of Botswana will decide the fate of the ‘success’ of Botswana attracting too many migratory elephants – but it begs the question, if the elephants are migratory, why should Botswana alone decide (and fund potential solutions) the fate of the migratory elephants that have sought refuge on Botswana’s soil? There needs to be wider support [ie. from the Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI), of which Botswana is a key/founding member] to help solve the problems the elephants are causing, for the safety of Botswana’s population and for the African elephant species.

Update: The EPI’s “solution” includes implementing the African Elephant Action Plan, agreed at   CITES, CoP15, March 2010, where “Each EPI country is developing a National Elephant Action Plan (NEAP), to establish priorities and raise funds” – EPI – “The Solution…”These carefully costed long-term elephant conservation plans from seven EPI member states require some 268 million dollars over the next three years. But Peter Middlebrook of the EPI’s Knowledge Partner Geopolicity said funding NEAPs in all the EPI member states up to the year 2030 would require about 1 billion dollars.”

The EPI reported October 2018 that Botswana is yet to submit its NEAP. Surely, Botswana’s proposed potential killing of elephants as a convenience (even under the guise of ‘legal’ trophy hunting) is hard to accommodate within the EPI’s conservation strategy without the EPI being undermined – or will the “sacrifice of some, to save the many” excuse* be used yet again?

* The African Wildlife Foundation reported in October 2017 (after intensive analysis of the CITES trade database) that between 2001 and 2015, an estimated 81,572 African elephants were killed for hunting trophies  – which equates to around some $2bn in trophy hunting income, at 81,572 x $25,000 (estimated average) per trophy. Where are the past ‘elephant conservation funds’ so raised and why can’t these ‘conservation’ funds raised from trophy hunting (as claimed by its advocates) be made available to the EPI?
However, beware because the African Elephant Action Plan (page 15, Activity 7.1.5) makes provision for “consumptive” trophy hunting (killing elephants, not saving them) as a means to appease affected local communities and presumably assumes (as always), there can be no detrimental impact for the elephant species ‘if’ such hunting is well-regulated:
“Activity 7.1.5. Assess and promote, as appropriate, consumptive and non-consumptive use of elephants and the sharing of benefits accrued with affected communities”

However, one other lesson from IWT this week has been the back-lash against the Duke of Cambridge’s alleged ‘White Saviour’ mentality. Clearly the most important thing is to actually care in the first place, regardless of one’s skin colour – but the message and the intent/objective of that caring has to be consistent, clear and all encompassing too.

President Masisi also alluded in his interview with The Times to the ‘tree huggers’ mentality,’ not understanding Africa and not having to face “marauding” elephants in their daily lives, but somehow feeling their opinion should have weight – he means people such as myself I suppose! Again, perhaps it’s because people care (which is better than not caring isn’t it?) that they feel the need to express their views – also something to do with freedom of speech I believe.

However, at the same time it’s hard to see how proposing to execute elephant families as a convenient solution to a macro problem (whilst potentially not giving due weight to the bigger picture of the need to conserve every elephant life whilst the species is under unrelenting threat), seems to ignore the image President Masisi wants to promote of Botswana as an ‘Eden’ for tourists – an image which also needs to resonate with potential visitors, such as myself I would suggest.

So, I hope President Masisi and the people of Botswana consider how the proposal to execute ‘problem’ elephant families by taking dollars from trophy hunters clashes with that ‘garden of Eden’ (sic) image/appeal – consider if other options within the “diverse strategy” offer better longer term dividends and help preserve the image of Brand Botswana as a safe haven for wildlife, no matter the difficulties and the effort needed to do the right thing, not just the easy thing.

I am sure, the Duke of Cambridge would agree that the effort and support needed to translocate elephants is a far better option than the outdated convenience of killing elephants and pretending it’s somehow part of the bigger conservation picture – if not, then President Masisi is right, I do not understand.


Further Reading

Lifting Botswana’s hunting ban endangers its status as a global conservation leader,” Dereck Joubert, Daily Maverick, 30 January 2020

Outrage over ‘unethical’ Botswana elephant hunt,” Don Pinnock, Daily Maverick, 11 December 2019

Trophy hunting of Elephants in Botswana has no place in conservation,” Ross Harvey, Daily Maverick, Conservation Action Trust,  14 November 2019

Man vs Elephant,” The Daily Telegraph, September 2019

Botswana elephant poaching ‘no hoax’,” BBC News, 25 February 2019

Syndicates move south; Botswana president calls it fake news,” Don Pinnock, Daily Maverick

Confusion Over Botswana’s Elephant Population,” iAfrica, 27 November 2018

Botswana to donate 500 elephants to Mozambique,”  Club of Mozambique, 31 October 2018

Understanding elephant migration in the world’s largest transfrontier conservation area,” Africa Geographic, 31 October 2018

Celebrities & campaigners demand halt to Trophy Hunting,” Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting, 29 October 2018

“Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Bill Oddie and other celebrities and campaigners today called for Botswana to cancel plans to allow trophy hunting of elephants to be legalised,” 29 October 2018.

The IWT 2018 London Conference – Call-to-action or Circus?,” John M Sellar (OBE, FRGS), 22 October 2018

Elephants, Facts and Fables,” Conservation Ecology Research Unit, University of Pretoria

Botswana’s President Masisi joins the Giants Club,” The Independent, 19 October 2018

Lawsuit Seeks Online Access to Federal Elephant, Lion Trophy-import Records,” Centre for Biological Diversity, 18 October 2018 – “The Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society International, Centre for Biological Diversity and Born Free USA sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today for violating the law by failing to post online elephant and lion trophy-permitting records on the Internet…..Trophy hunting adds another layer of cruelty and  threat to their survival

Elephant Protection Initiative” – “The EPI is an intergovernmental initiative supported by a Secretariat comprising two non-governmental organisations Stop Ivory and Conservation International.”

African Leaders Seek $1 Billion for Elephant Conservation,” AllAfrica, 15 October 2018

Bots[wana] ‘kicks out’ Kenyan conservationist,” CITE, 15 October 2018

Ivory Alliance 2024,” UK Government, 11 October 2018 “…….a coalition of political leaders, conservationists and celebrities dedicated to defeating the illegal trade in ivory……..The Ivory Alliance 2024 will work with partners globally to secure at least 30 new commitments to domestic ivory bans by the end of 2020 and for tougher enforcement against those caught breaking the law

Opinion: The Uproarious, Unbearable Digging of Tusks into Trophy Hunting,” Michael Katz, The Daily Campus, 15 October 2018

London Declaration on illegal wildlife trade commits to protect endangered species,” TSG Sunday Guardian Live, 13 October 2018

Elephants Without Borders Statement 20 September 2018,” Elephants Without Borders

Nearly 100 elephants killed for ivory in Botswana,” The Telegraph, 4 September 2018

87 Elephants Killed by Poachers in Africa’s ‘Last Safe Haven’,” National Geographic, 4 September 2018

Arguments for lifting the ban are unsound,” Dr Mike Chase, Elephants Without Borders (EWB), Mmegi-online, 6 July 2018

Botswana: Police Link Elephant Attacks to Poaching,” All Africa, 18 January 2018

What Trophy Hunting Does to the Elephants It Leaves Behind,” The Atlantic, Science, 18 November 2017

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