By Joseph Goergen
As the COVID-19 crisis dominants the world’s attention and media headlines, the global response needs to consider the impact of a tourism shutdown to wildlife conservation. Closed borders and travel restrictions are jeopardizing millions of acres of habitat managed by safari operators and the many livelihoods they support.
In Botswana for example, years of work to reinstate a sustainable hunting program that drives benefits into rural areas is now on hold. With quotas already purchased and hunts booked, the Botswana Wildlife Producers Association is urgently calling on the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism and its Department of Wildlife and National Parks to extend the season, set to have started on April 7th. SCI is meanwhile recommending clients contact their PHs to find a solution for each unique situation.
Given the long-lasting shock from coronavirus to the safari industry and local communities, it’s even more important that plans for the new hunt go on. Here’s a look back at how the decision was first made.
“Therisanô” and tlotlô.” These Setswana translations for “consultation” and “respect” are words you’ll hear often in Botswana and are integral to the traditions of open discussion and tribal decision-making. They also accurately describe the country’s recent process for reopening hunting. A media statement earlier this year by the government once again outlined their transparent decision.
First off, let’s be clear on a couple things. Botswana is home to well over 130,000 free-ranging elephants. Combined with Zimbabwe and the rest of the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, this metapopulation represents the majority of all elephants in Africa. Almost 40% of the Botswana’s total land area is protected, a huge commitment to conservation and a rate most Western nations can’t imagine ever achieving.
Secondly, there was never a hunting “ban” as the media tells you. Convinced of the potential for photo tourism to replace the consumptive use of wildlife, the previous administration instituted a suspension of hunting on public lands in 2014 renewed annually by executive order during Ian Khama’s term. While some species populations were declining at the time, likely due to the growing elephant problem, elephants and the majority of other species were actually still increasing.
In those five years, elephant populations exploded beyond their historic range causing an unprecedented level of human-wildlife conflict. South of the world-famous Okavango Delta and Chobe enclave is one of the only areas in Africa where elephant range is actually expanding, unfortunately to the detriment of rural Batswana. These herds urgently need to be managed to within their ecological carrying capacity and social tolerance. Local communities are now facing new hardships as they’ve been deprived of revenue once brought in by international tourist hunting.
Last year, H.E. President Mokgweetsi Masisi lifted the temporary moratorium. Long before Masisi’s announcement however, he established a Cabinet level Sub-Committee focused on social dialogue and began an extensive consultation process further implemented by the Ministry and Department. Masisi himself along with his government authorities have continued to defend their decision to the general public and disingenuous journalists.
“Masisi with his vision opened up consultation with the people most impacted, where Batswana were involved in expressing their concerns and given a voice for solutions. That goes way back into our cultural traditions. Both the ‘therisanô’ and ‘tlotlô’ values were implemented in this process” as the Botswana Ambassador to the United States Hon. David Newman put it at the 2020 SCI Convention. “Under President Masisi’s administration the policy frameworks, laws and economic programs put our people first and we don’t make any apology for that.”
Only after this lengthy consultation and town halls held across the country did the Sub-Committee recommend the reopening of a controlled hunting program. Through the process it became apparent that the suspension was not science-based, human-wildlife conflict was having significant impacts on livelihoods, predation on livestock was increasing and capacity to deal with problem animals was over constrained. Following the moratorium, it was also clear that photo tourism had not contributed to economic development on marginal lands leading to a sense of disenfranchisement with conservation efforts and even resentment towards wildlife from local communities.
The Ministry reiterated that “the decision to lift the hunting moratorium is the sovereign right and decision of Botswana, based on a democratic and nationwide process of affected stakeholders,” wrote the Hon. Minister Philda Kereng in a press release. “The controlled hunting program will generate significant conservation benefits and support to community livelihoods.”
While the SCI show was going on in the United States in early February, back home the Ministry held a special elephant quota auction. In total, six packages of ten permits were sold to safari operators raising the pula equivalent of almost $2.3 million USD. Although Botswana has an internationally recognized CITES export quota of 400 elephant trophies, the national offtake will remain much more conservative at about .002% of the population. Proceeds from these hunts are currently being held by the Conservation Trust Fund and will be invested back directly into community development projects in areas of high elephant conflict where the hunts take place.
The Department of Wildlife and National Parks continues working to ensure the program is guided by the highest ethical standards and scientific principles of sustainability.
Safari Club International and Safari Club International Foundation understand that trophy hunting is not the focus of Masisi’s reform, nor will trophy hunting fulfill the ultimate need to manage Botswana’s elephant overpopulation. However, it is to be applauded as one of the biggest positive stories for community-based sustainable use wildlife conservation in southern Africa. President Masisi and all of Batswana now stand as a voice for the region.
“We are fierce protectors of our environment and these traditions are woven into our cultural fabric,” said H.E. President Masisi in an interview. “These are human beings we’re talking about. They are citizens of my country possessing equal human rights. We have a right to development, and we have a right to determine that path. So, we’re going to do it.”
Please learn more by watching this documentary by the Conservation Imperative, “Voices from the Frontline: Communities and Livelihoods in Botswana”.
Joseph Goergen is the Conservation Manager at Safari Club International Foundation.