Yet again Britain’s well-intentioned eco-warriors are lecturing African leaders on how best to manage their wild animal populations. In this case the self-appointed “Africa experts”, many of whom live in leafy suburbs or bucolic English country retreats, have expressed disgust that Botswana may reintroduce trophy hunting of elephants, having banned it for five years. They have also called for tourists to boycott the country.
Not surprisingly this has been badly received by rural communities forced to endure the predations of animals such as elephants, which constantly threaten their crops and families. That our eco-warriors apparently regard these creatures as Disneyesque pets and see no irony in bestowing colonial names on them — who could forget Cecil the lion — elicits groans of despair from rural Africans.
Unlike Kenya, which banned hunting in 1977 and in the intervening 40 years has lost an estimated 80 per cent of its wild animal population, Botswana has been a conservation success story. Until the ban in 2014, trophy hunting brought in significant revenue and employment in harsh, remote areas.
Since the ban, which was imposed by the previous president Ian Khama, community leaders say work and money have all but dried up. Despite promises from the luxury tourism industry, photographic safaris have not filled the void and Khama’s successor, Mokgweetsi Masisi, appointed a parliamentary sub-committee to look into the problem. It recommended not only lifting the hunting ban but that efforts be made to confine elephants to protected areas and to reduce the population through culling.
Botswana’s success in protecting its elephant population has created an ecological nightmare in parts of the country. Chobe in the northeast is home to as many as half of the country’s 130,000 elephants, by far the largest population on the continent. The loss of biodiversity here is a graphic illustration of how destructive too many elephants can be. In Chobe 92 per cent of biomass is now elephant, with a substantial loss of species such as bushbuck and warthog. At the same time there has been a reduction of tree species from 17 to two, depriving birds of nesting sites and small land species of cover.
The problems facing Africa’s wildlife conservationists are deep and complicated. Threats of tourist boycotts from British townies are not only unhelpful but downright arrogant. If we want to help, we should try to understand the problems and put aside the kneejerk responses.
Graham Boynton is a co-founder of Community Conservation Fund Africa