Sun. Nov 29th, 2020

Conservation: Botswana shoots itself in the foot

After Barack Obama came Donald Trump, a bigoted populist prone to crass outpourings and some peculiar legislative ideas. His time in office has reminded the world how prone humans are to gullibility and acts of shameful regression.

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The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of The South African.

In a relapse of similar measures, President Mokgweetsi Masisi and his Botswana government have somehow contrived a justification to take the country backwards with the recently announced reintroduction of trophy hunting.

The formal declaration ends months of public discussion and rumour, often fired by an astonishingly ill-informed and partisan local press, and it follows earlier statements by officials of elephant culling programmes that come with meat canning and pet food factories. 

Ostensibly done to improve socio-economic conditions in rural communities living alongside wildlife areas, and to halt the human-animal conflicts that arise, the decision, however, belies these motivations and points instead to a rather clumsy play to serve political expediency. It’s why they have been trying to secure the services of a Hollywood-based PR firm, an attempt that has failed with the contract being terminated due to gross misrepresentation by Botswana.

Few would argue against the governments wish to tackle the concerns expressed, or to improve on the shortcomings of previous administrations, and the record of ecotourism operators. However, to use a series of untruths, factual distortions and myths about elephants and their ecology to reintroduce trophy hunting as the solution is simply nonsensical. It is also highly irresponsible to pass on obligations to secure the future of both rural communities and the environment to a sector that is for the most part merely interested in killing elephants and other species for trophies. 

What this move has done is blight over two
decades of advancements made in the conservation and ecotourism sectors of the
country, ones that have hitherto been held in high regard both locally and

And this record is one that should be trumpeted. In the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) 2018 Economic Impact report on Botswana, they point out the significant role the ecotourism industry plays in the overall economy. In 2018, the contribution reached US$2,5billion or 13.4% of the total economy, which translates to tourism accounting for one in every seven dollars in circulation. Of particular interest is the period between 2013, when trophy hunting was stopped, and 2018, which saw a 70% increase in GDP contributions from non-consumptive tourism. 

In addition, tourism provides approximately
89 000 jobs, or 9% of the total workforce. And these are jobs that offer
skills training, long term security and transferable career opportunities.
Other than government activities, northern Botswana has no other economic
sector to speak of, which means ecotourism accounts for the vast majority of
employment and economic growth in this region.

These gains have come precisely because the
country switched away from trophy hunting to develop non-consumptive tourism,
and they have come on the back of the large elephant herds as well as a host of
other drawcard species that roam what are for the most part well-managed
protected areas.  Speak to any safari
operator and they will also tell you about the considerable goodwill dividend
Botswana has enjoyed with visitors making choices over other destinations
because of their no hunting policy. 

Where is all this in the government’s
reckoning? At every level of measurement, trophy hunting contributions are a
fraction of a fraction of what non-consumptive ecotourism has achieved for the
country. It is inconceivable that a government would ignore these successes and
chose to take a course of action that may well end up eroding the gains, not to
mention the gene pool of the very asset that forms the base of what could be
their only sustainable economic sector. 

Adding to the populist rhetoric has been the irrational attack on so-called Western or foreign conservation agencies and individuals opposing the new policy. In case the government hasn’t been listening, there is also widespread opposition to these moves across the continent. And maybe it’s worth reminding President Masisi that the impressive growth in the tourism industry has been built on the Dollars and Pounds of foreign visitors; WTTC reports that 73% of all travel spending is made by international visitors.

In addition, we also know that over 99% of the diamonds the country is as famous for have ended up in the hands of foreigners. And who does President Masisi think is coming to shoot the elephants and lions?    

One has to believe the government is genuinely concerned about the plight of rural citizens. But then they are obligated to undertake the necessary research across all disciplines and sectors to fully understand the evolving nature of human population dynamics, settlement behaviour and the socio-economic challenges as well as the movement of elephants and other species in these regions.

Widespread education and awareness campaigns on the significant long-term benefits of the ecotourism industry would also help. And with the results, they then develop and implement a range of interventions that provide education, health-care, career prospects, safety from wildlife and other socio-economic benefits in a sustainable manner.

Reintroducing trophy hunting will have no
impact on any of the government’s concerns as there is no correlation
whatsoever between them and the ban introduced in 2013. These same issues were
at play prior to 2013 when hunting was still in place. Trying to bluff the
world otherwise is extremely short-sighted and akin to simply shooting oneself
in the foot.   

Ian Michler is a safari operator and environmental journalist. During the 1990s and 2000s, he spent 13 years living and working across northern Botswana.

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