Elephant Wars

26 May 2019

By Richard Moleofe

The Government of Botswana has taken an active and controversial decision to lift the ban on elephant hunting. The ban was put in place about five years ago by the Minister of Tourism with the blessing of the then President Ian Khama.

According to researchers, the carrying capacity of our country sixty-five thousand while at the moment it stands at double that number. From a security point of view, it was never a good idea to ban the hunting of elephants.

In fact the quota for the number of elephants should have been increased five years ago in order to do a stock reduction process that would not raise queries by the rest of the world and particularly the West.

In the last five years communities living within wildlife areas have been begging the government to re-introduce hunting. It is not only the elephants, but an array of other species that were affected by the ban have been in the list crusaded by the communities in their campaign.

Currently Botswana holds the continent’s largest elephant population and we need to re-trace the reasons behind the steady growth of this species of wildlife and the people that live with it. To be specific, Botswana is home to one third of Africa’s elephant population. Since South Africa’s independence in 1994, Botswana Defence Force re-focused its operations and anti-poaching became big business for them. On this subject matter I am writing as an insider because I served in Botswana’s military for twenty years as an officer.

In Botswana, there is no way you can talk about wildlife without linking it to matters of security. BDF has dedicated almost 70% of its budget to wildlife protection. Because wildlife scouts have been replaced by the military, government has not hesitated in investing in the necessary hardware for anti-poaching operations for the military.

Having spent handsomely on the protection of animals for the last three decades, the country should begin to reap where it has sown. Tourism as the second biggest foreign currency earner after mining will even become bigger and better with hunting.

Botswana’s military has over the years contributed handsomely to the Gross Domestic Product of the country. If the military had not endured in the anti-poaching operations, we wouldn’t even be having anything close to what we have in the tourism industry. However, it was not by design that the military worked toward the growing the economy in the manner that we see now.

Botswana’s previous president had something else in his mind in as far as wildlife protection is concerned. As he was Commander at BDF before joining politics, he has had a historic contribution to the industry in Botswana.

General Ian Khama had upper most his mind his personal business interests. He is a known investor in Wilderness Safaris which has a long history in the tourism industry of Botswana. All these years he never had us in the equation of his business deals.

The current elephant wars are actually class wars and many may not see it as it is for now. The rich tour operator wants the ban on hunting to persist because his business thrives through high-end tourism. The villager in Nokaneng is happy that the ban has been lifted as they will now be able to resume their jobs as guides to the hunting tourist. It is both tourism but from two different and distinct platforms.

When it is hunting season, the families in those small communities living in the wildlife areas normally have improved nutrition. The carcases of the slaughtered animals provide so much needed protein. These are bread and butter issues for the communities affected.

For the high end tourism outlets, the lives of the ordinary poor citizens are never found in their equation. It is indeed true that Botswana is getting a fair share of business in this industry. But where does the money go? The Western tourists deposit their payments into European accounts and arrive at our shores empty handed.

The way our tourism industry has been designed is in such a way that it brings minimum benefits to the country. If the industry can bring so much revenue under the current circumstances, done properly we could see tourism exceeding the ailing mining industry.

Coming back to the issue of communities found in the wildlife reserves, these are the poorest in the whole of Botswana. The Ngamiland and Okavango areas have whole communities living in abject poverty and yet these are the mainstay areas of tourism. This shows the evidence that tourism has in the past been done the wrong way.

The communities here are largely poor because their farming efforts have been reversed by wildlife. The elephants trample on their crops while the lions and other predators feast on their domestic animals.

Whatever little is left of their animals cannot be sold to the country’s markets such as Botswana Meat Commission because foot and mouth disease has become a permanent feature in this part of the country. Their cloven animals are banned from entering the red meat market.

And this is why I clearly understand this war to be a class war. It is the rich versus the poor and it is the rich who normally have an upper hand in any class war. Currently the government is working in support of the poor in the re-introduction of hunting.

In any case, hunting of elephants has its own problems. Trophy hunters come to Africa looking for the big elephant bull carrying that typical rich ivory. What happens to the rest of the remaining family because elephants live in communities resembling those of humans?

The problem of elephant hunting is far more complex than most of us seem to comprehend it. It is the delicate balance between wildlife and those who live around it. Wildlife and particularly elephants pose an existential threat to the communities living along side with them.

*Richard Moleofe is a security analyst