Botswana hides behind national “sovereignty” while selling off its natural heritage to foreign hunters and treating elephants as mere commodities, writes ecological economist Ross Harvey.
In February 2020 the government of Botswana auctioned off the right to hunt and kill 60 elephants — the first salvo toward a quota that aimed to allow the trophy hunting of 272 elephants this year.
Plans for those hunts, which would have been the first since the country’s 2013 hunting moratorium, were put on hold in late March by the worldwide pandemic when Botswana banned travelers from the United States and other “high-risk” countries. But the Botswana Wildlife Producers Association, which represents the hunting industry, quickly asked for an extension of this year’s hunting season.
If the COVID-19 lockdowns end sometime soon, the bullets could quickly begin flying.
Botswana is a cash-strapped nation, so one can perhaps understand the short-term attraction of trophy hunting. The government made $2.3 million in a few hours on that February afternoon from selling 60 elephants at an average of $39,000 per head.
The pandemic has not slowed this thirst for short-term profits. On 27 March, just a few days after Botswana closed its borders, it reportedly auctioned off additional hunting rights for 15 elephants, two leopards and dozens of other animals for a total of $540,000. The auction results have not been publicly reported, but were conveyed to me by a present, concerned party.
An Elephant’s Value
To ecological economists like me, the push for trophy hunts seems to severely undervalue these magnificent creatures.
Notwithstanding their obvious intrinsic value, elephants most likely have even greater ecological-economic value than these hunting permits reflect.
For one thing, each elephant contributes to the dynamics of the ecosystem and improves the functionality of forests and savannahs as effective carbon sinks. A whole host of other species depend on elephants’ movements, which create forest corridors and shape the habitat. Elephant droppings fertilize forests and savannas and carry seeds to new locations. Even tiny tadpoles have been known to live in elephant footsteps.
And then there’s the value to people. A 2014 report estimated that elephants are each worth more than $1.6 million in ecotourism alone. Purchasing an elephant at an auction for $39,000 and selling it on to a trophy hunter for $85,000, therefore, seems not only ethically callous but economically senseless.
Elephants are not alone in this. Recent work by International Monetary Fund economists estimated the value of a single whale at $2 million over its lifetime due to its roles in carbon sequestration, the growth of carbon-absorbing and oxygen-generating phytoplankton, and whale-watching tourism. They estimate that the world’s population of whales alone are worth a staggering $1 trillion. Obviously, there are no whales in Botswana, but the research illustrates the growing trend of valuing large megafauna well beyond their charismatic appearances.
An Important History
The Botswana government, under former president Ian Khama, originally placed a moratorium on trophy hunting back in 2013. In May 2019 the current government justified hunting’s reintroduction as an element of the country’s “sovereign right” — while at the same time abrogating this right to a foreign hunting organization, Safari Club International, which now openly boasts of how it influenced the decision.
During the moratorium wildlife and tourism groups lauded Botswana as a haven for elephants, a conservation and marketing success that saw rapid growth in the country’s ecotourism industry.
When President Mokgweetsi Masisi came to power, however, the political narrative changed from recognizing elephants as critical to the country’s success to labelling them as a problem to be “managed.” The president and other cabinet members have repeatedly peddled the view that there are “too many” elephants and that they are responsible for environmental damage and increased human-elephant conflict.
Of course, this myth has been repeatedly exposed and debunked.
That debunking hasn’t changed Botswana’s messaging. Trophy hunting, the world is told, will result in benefits such as meat, revenue and jobs for local communities in rural areas close to wildlife. These benefits will purportedly increase “frustration tolerance” (acceptance of the risk of living near elephants) among local community members, thus indirectly serving conservation ends.
Excluded from this new narrative is an acknowledgment that the moratorium was originally imposed because of the widespread failures of governance in community trusts. Abuses in the hunting industry were rife. There was also no evidence that trophy hunting revenues were equitably distributed or that hunting was contributing to wildlife conservation. In fact, wildlife numbers for many species were in decline by 2012, and excessive trophy hunting was considered among the potential causes of the decline. There’s good evidence to substantiate this, so the government cannot now argue that the ban was “not scientifically based.”
Moreover, the growth in Botswana’s tourism industry in the wake of the moratorium was remarkable, with increases in both the number of tourists and profits — not to mention growing elephant populations. This alone supports the idea of keeping photographic tourism as the primary revenue opportunity for elephants and other wildlife.
It’s not without criticism, however. We must also recognize that the Botswana Tourism Organisation — set up by the government to take a 65% share of photographic-community joint-venture revenue (leaving only 35% for communities that live with or near wildlife) — has been a governance disaster. In addition, the barriers for citizens to enter the tourism industry are impossibly high. They face formidable red tape in the licensing process and must conduct their own environmental impact assessments, which cost time and a lot of money.
These are long-term problems to solve, regardless of what type of tourism we’re talking about.
Trophy Hunting Is Not Conservation
But the growth of photographic tourism and wildlife populations are not discussed by the current government. Instead the narrative persists that trophy hunting will indirectly serve conservation by giving communities the tools and resources to withstand any human-elephant conflict they encounter. No clear evidence exists, however, that this type of conflict has increased since the moratorium, and it was prevalent long before then.
In fact research shows that hunting makes human-elephant conflict worse. The violent deaths of elder elephants creates intergenerational trauma, leading to increased aggression and delinquent behavior among young bulls. Growing human populations and resultant competition over access to water, which will become increasingly scarce under climate change, will make things even worse.
Trophy hunting is therefore a short-term non-solution to human-elephant conflict.
Yes, some communities lost short-term hunting revenue after the moratorium was put in place, but that should not serve as cause to invite hunting’s return — not even for communities now facing the spectre of lost tourism income during the pandemic.
A Tragedy in the Making
Lifting the hunting moratorium under the guise of a country’s “sovereign right” is Orwellian doublespeak. Botswana does not own Africa’s shared elephants, which migrate between countries, yet the government has sold them out to foreign hunters and to satisfy foreign interests like Safari Club International. The long-term opportunity costs of hunting have not been considered, yet the government blindly insists that it will produce “significant conservation benefits.” Two plus two equals five here. There is no evidence that the Ministry’s decision has been guided by “the highest ethical standards and principles of science-based sustainability.” No publicly available science warrants the quota of 272 elephants for 2020, let alone the arbitrary allocation across sensitive areas and other areas which likely cannot sustain hunting at all.
Botswana’s decision to lift the trophy-hunting moratorium was ill advised at best and an indication of short-term rent-seeking at worst. It’s ecologically unsustainable, undermining the very foundations of the country’s recent ecotourism successes. Attempting to justify it under the banner of “sovereignty” raises questions, as the right to kill public heritage is being granted to wealthy foreign hunters. The ultimate tragedy is that the rural poor living with or near wildlife will be no better off.
And Botswana’s selling additional hunting rights during a worldwide pandemic, when the world’s attention is elsewhere, shows that the government does not care about its people or its elephants — only short-term profits.
COVID-19 has exposed humanity’s propensity to treat wild animals as mere commodities to be consumed. Animals slaughtered at wet meat markets in Wuhan were the most likely intermediary source of zoonotic spillover — possibly involving transmission of a bat virus from animals to humans. Trophy hunting reflects the very same mentality, that wild animals exist only for our entertainment and consumption.
It would be a real tragedy if these planned hunts simply resumed when the current lockdowns are lifted.
This article first appeared in The Revelator.