Reuters

GABORONE, March 23 (Reuters) – Botswana’s first elephant hunting season since 2014 has been hit hard by hunters pulling out because of the coronavirus outbreak, tour operators said.

The Botswana Wildlife Producers Association (BWPA) said it had asked for an extension of the hunting season, due to start in April, because travel restrictions meant hunters from many coronavirus-hit countries cannot enter Botswana.

Botswana has no confirmed case of the virus but has banned arrivals from 18 high-risk countries, including the United States, Britain, Italy and Spain.

The country’s president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, has been placed in self-isolation after attending the swearing-in of Namibian President Hage Geingob – an event some African leaders attended in violation of their own travel restrictions.

“Everything is at a standstill. All clients that were supposed to come in have either postponed or cancelled,” said Clive Eaton, who owns Tholo Safaris, a hunting company that last month bought licences to hunt 20 elephants.

“It’s a huge blow for the industry but at the moment we are doing our best not to lay off workers,” he told Reuters.

The BWPA said bookings across the industry had been cancelled or postponed.

The pandemic poses a threat to economies like Botswana, where tourism is big business. The country’s vast tracts of wilderness are a magnet for those who want to view – or hunt – wildlife.

Proceeds from hunting licence auctions, worth around 13 million pula ($1.08 million) annually before hunting was banned in 2014 due to declining elephant numbers, go to community trusts used for development.

However a resumption of hunting, to reduce the impact of elephants on people and crops, proved controversial internationally.

A leading wildlife charity, the Born Free Foundation, urged Botswana to abandon any return to trophy hunting.

“Born Free has always maintained that commercial hunting does not offer an ethical or sustainable wildlife management tool, nor is it an effective or sustainable way of funding conservation activities or local communities,” its policy head Mark Jones said.

Hunting companies now want the government to extend the hunting season to beyond September or even into next year.

“If the outbreak extends more than 3 months, the hunting season will be too short to market the full quotas and fit in all the hunts. We have approached the government in this regard and are waiting for feedback,” the BWPA said.

An auction of licences to hunt 15 elephants is due to go ahead as planned on Friday. (Reporting by Brian Benza and Martyn Herman; Editing by Emma Rumney and Giles Elgood)