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A crisis of too many, not too few.

Reflections on elephants, trees, conservation and the future by Dr Brian Child.

From a series of articles published in Botswana's Mmegionline between April and July 2019


These notes provide information and my own personal opinions about the wildlife sector in Botswana. This is based on my father’s deep experience in the wildlife sector in Botswana starting in the 1960s, and my own observations working with students and communities between 2006 and 2013.

During the latter period I specifically chose to work in Botswana because I was excited by the quality of the young professionals in government and academia.

There was also enthusiastic support for improving Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM), including addressing serious problems of governance within communities.

This tended to be blamed on communities but was diagnosed, more correctly, as a consequence of governance issues being largely ignored in the design and management of CBNRM at the beginning. However, by 2013, it was clear that this positive situation had completely changed. The re-exertion of externally-driven, top-down, non-use philosophies was causing despair and even destitution in communities, and frustration in the young professionals supporting them.

The reversal of the considerable progress that Botswana was beginning to make, and the move away from pragmatic conservation based on fact and analysis towards a largely ideological and fictitious approach, reflects the impact of unaccountable Western conservation dogma.

So forgive me a brief rant before I get on with an overview of elephant conservation and management in the context of Botswana and its wildlife potential. 

The poison of special interest

Over the past few decades, Western special interest groups have captured the conservation narrative. Pragmatic, local conservation decision-making is increasingly overwhelmed by simplistic arguments full of factual and intellectual error and spin. I do not think I am exaggerating if I suggest that these external agendas are a greater threat to wildlife than the illegal wildlife trade. Good intentions (if we give the majority the benefit of the doubt) are no excuse for ignoring reality and complexity.   They are certainly no excuse for undermining the long-term progress that conservation approaches designed in Africa, by Africans, are delivering.

These successful local approaches are being deliberately undermined from afar without understanding them, in the name of externally-imposed ideology not conservation results. Shockingly too, conservation special interests are running roughshod over the principles of democracy so soon after the shackles of colonialism were thrown off.

Under the surface, anger and resentment have been stewing as costly, non-workable ideas have been imposed upon Africans by people who are neither properly informed nor accountable in any way for the costs that their actions impose.

With my blood boiling in frustration, I have personally observed more than one international meetings about African elephants with no Africans in the room. Most Africans cannot afford to travel to the many fancy international conferences whose empty proclamations have become a proxy for real action. The pity is that some of those who can travel are influenced to act against the interest of their own people by means fair and foul.  Under the mature leadership of President Mokgweetsi Masisi, the dam of pent up frustration about this stupidity and unfairness seems about to burst, and not just in Botswana because many people in southern Africa are similarly miffed. For the first time on social media we are witnessing a serious local pushback over externally-imposed elephant management policies in Botswana and elsewhere.

This is spreading to wildlife more generally. Only yesterday, again for the first time, I heard a sound case for the trade of rhinos on the liberal CapeTalk radio station, with the host defending the speaker’s common sense of this position.

This is a substantial shift from the sycophantic interview of the Kenyan, Paula Kahumbu, I heard on the same station last year, without any questioning of why a country that had expanded its wildlife population many fold was listening uncritically to policy prescriptions that had done the exact opposite in Kenya.

It is probably not a coincidence that WWF now finds itself in hot waterover funding potentially extra-legal anti-poaching measures, and a focus on global benefits rather than local consequences.

It is fascinating that the mature approach taken by President Masisi regarding democratic process and an over-abundant species has suddenly unleashed so much social media and local journalistic activity.

Until now, the media, with some refreshing exceptions, has largely ignored southern Africa’s pragmatic policies based on sustainable use and local democracy, including a 70-year track record of actually working. There is a substantial disconnect between the massive recovery of wildlife through sustainable use policies, and the media’s portrayal of this.

In rejecting the notion that the elephants and lions that live in our back yards are ours to decide upon, and not a global asset over which we Africans are too unimportant or ignorant to have a say, we have threatened the global conservation hegemony. We have, by means fair and foul, been pushed to the fringe of the debate about solutions in forums like CITES.

Despite having brought rhinos back from the brink of extinction, from less than 100 animals to over 20,000 now, we were dealt the ignominy of being completely unheard in the recent CITES meeting in South Africa, which chose instead to continue along the path of proven failure.

In my own reading, Africans are fed up with being disrespected and sidelined in favour of unworkable, condescending, external ideologies, and now want to control their own policies. They are sick of the ineffective self-serving debate.

They are sick of scarce conservation dollars being captured by ineffective middlemen and fake solutions – like demand reduction. They are sick of the hypocrisy of these middlemen, who say one thing when they work in Africa, but preach a weak and false conservation ideology to raise money at home.

In prioritising money rather than conservation or, indeed, the truth, they sail very close to the line of fraudulent conservation – fraudulent in that conservation agencies raise money on the back of concepts that are clearly unworkable and even deceitful. They are also sick of being perceived as corrupt, when they see ‘democratic’ decision processes in forums like CITES being manipulated by holier-than-though special interests who see their own ends as more important than the means, including corrupt actions.

For too long, conservation ‘policy’ has been shaped by the narrow interests of special interest and the blunt instrument of external financing, magnified by statements of far distant celebrities. The facts – ecological, economic, and distributional – their consequences, and the opportunities they provide, have been pushed into the margins of these debates, like floor sweepings in the corner of a room.

In these brief notes, I would like to bring to the table facts and personal opinions about the relationship between the management of elephants and wildlife in Botswana, and the people who live with them. I am sure that many of these ideas are familiar to Africans, because I have learned from African conservationists, communities, farmers, hunters, and tour operators over many years.

There are now at least 130,000 elephants in Botswana, which is part of approximately 216,000 elephants in the Kavango Zambezi TFCA and the largest elephant population in Africa.

However, elephant poaching in the rest of Africa does not imply that southern Africa should accept a massive and destructive over-population of elephants. Like any excesses – too many elk in Yellowstone, too many cattle on the range – this has visible and less visible environmental and human consequences.

In Botswana’s case, these are magnified by poverty and the fragile complexity of dry savannas. Forests of dead and dying trees are visible for all to see, but elephants are also causing massive changes in the composition and function of these ecosystems that are less visible to the casual observer.

If you enter Chobe National Park along the original road from Kasane town, you will pass a small ruined house on the banks of the Chobe River near the old park gate. This was built by my father in 1965. It replaced the tent where my mother and I lived while my father spent many weeks deep in the field mapping and measuring the environment before the days even of reliable radios, let alone maps and satellite images.

Set amongst huge riverine trees, this ‘house’ overlooked the dense reed beds of the Chobe floodplain. We could not see the cars on the nearby road because the riverine bush was so thick. Today, the extensive reedbeds are gone, and there is no longer any thick bush to hide the ruins of our old house, one small symptom of the radical alterations to Botswana’s ecosystem since the 1960s wrought by tens of thousands of elephants.

My late father, as Botswana’s first professional ecologist, played a significant role in shaping Chobe and other national parks, as well as creating Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks.

Indeed, the agency logo is a bat-eared fox, the legacy of our pet Nipper rescued from a python in the Kalahari. My father was mentored by Thane Riney, who led FAO’s Africa Special Project for wildlife and later played a prominent role in IUCN. With powers of observation that I always found miraculous, my father had an exceptional capability for ‘reading’ the environment, while scrupulous observation about the number and condition of animals, grass, and trees fill his worn notebooks and carefully cross-referenced forms. This is how we know that, in 1965, 299 trees lined a mile-long river transect from our camp, including 17 species of big, impressive giants.

One of my greatest pleasures as a new professor at the University of Florida in 2004 were the many months I spent with my students and my father as he unwrapped the ecological and human history of northern Botswana and eastern Namibia for us, and as we redid some of his measurements.

It is not good enough to be appalled by the devastated riverine habitats in Chobe. To quantify these losses we recounted these trees and repeated some of his early transects. Much to our surprise, there were now slightly more trees - 324 to be exact. However, the structure of the habitats had been transformed, and not in a good way. Fully 270 (83%) of the ‘trees’ along the Chobe riverbank were the scrubby bush Croton megalobotrus. Huge knob thorns (Acacia nigrescens) that had constituted 51% of the forest were now down to 1.3 percent - indeed, only four of the 152 large had survived. Six slow growing large species disappeared altogether.

The only ‘real trees’ to survive are the unpalatable Natal mahoganies (Tricelia emetica). Six of the 14 species recorded in 1965 disappeared, including Ziziphus micronata, Diosyrus mespliformis, Kigelia africana (pinata), Acacia albida, Acacia galpinii and Acacia erioloba. 

Many of these are big, impressive (and palatable) trees. Three species not previously present have colonized the strip, Markhamia obtusfolia, Markamia zanzibarica and Capparis tomentosa, which is actaully a vine that grows into the tree layer and can be self-supporting.

Despite the obvious damage and obvious cause – too many elephants –, more than one politically correct scientist has sought fascinating explanations to shift the blame away from elephants and to avoid the need to tackle a looming problem.

One would expect these radical changes in vegetation to be transmitted to the animal kingdom through the intricate hand of ecological feedback mechanisms. Repeating my dad’s transects and dung plots from the 1960s showed that this was the case, with a radical shift in the composition of wildlife diversity. Increaser species like elephant, impala and kudu respond positively to shrub encroachment and were doing well, as were giraffe which, historically, never occurred on the riverfront.

However, ecology is a story of winners and losers. There were substantial declines in warthog and waterbuck, and we no longer counted a single example of the bushbuck, puku and wildebeest of yesterday in the sample plots. Ironically, the Chobe bushbuck is now rare in Chobe, except near human habitation where thickets are protected from elephants. 

With too few samples to be statistically sure, we nevertheless express concern about declines in rare antelope like tsessebe, while and perhaps roan and sable, were perhaps also less commonat lower numbers. This places great responsibility and poses tough decisions for those of us who claim to promote healthy ecosystems, or praise the mantra of biological diversity.

In 1968, my father expressed his concern that elephants were damaging the health of the ecosystem to higher authorities. At this time, there may have been as few as 15,000 elephants in Botswana, and surface water was more abundant.

He documented a widespread tendency for elephant to concentrate on particular species of trees in given areas, often destroying them in a short period of time. 

The majority of mukwa and mugongo nut trees were ring barked in an area just to the north of Ngwezumba Bridge in 1963.  Virtually all the Kirkia and Commiphora trees were pushed over in a large area on the face of the sand ridge west of Ihaha in 1965.

All but one of the 124 lone Acacia tortilis trees scattered through the mopane woodland in the eastern Mababe had been pushed over by elephant that year. Many of the old majestic camel thorn trees, Acacia erealoba, around the Savuti channel and to the south of the Gubatsa hills were also killed by elephant in that or the next year.  Returning to Kasane in 2007, he wrote: “The once magnificent riparian strip with its attendant species of birds and small animals has all but disappeared except where it is protected by the old Park Headquarters, and even there it is under threat. When we left Kasane there was a magnificent belt of mainly camel thorn trees (Acacia erioloba) running up the length of the Sedudu valley where Selous camped in 1874, but elephant had already started work on them. Today virtually all of the 600 odd trees that had been over 400 years old stand as stark skeletons in a sea of scrubby croton bushes.”

Was this an isolated problem, limited to the Chobe riverfront? My father and Tim Fullman, my PhD student, bounced 80km south of the river on old cutlines to count trees and tree damage, complaining bitterly about having to cross the “haemorrhagic plains” of the upper Ngwezumba catchment, once a permanent source of water and home to a band of bushmen. It is hard to be scientific about what is not there, but many of the palatable species that one would expect in these environments were ‘missing’ from Tim’s data. We saw the same thing in Moremi, when my father trained my students in ecological methods by repeating his old transects. In a transect near the Khwai community, tasty species like Ziziphus macronata and good old knob thorns recorded on my father’s 1967 transect forms were gone, or stood as stark skeletons.

The elephants had eaten all the sweets in the shop. They also seemed to be ‘farming’ mopane, which was spreading because of its ability to coppice when knocked down. Indeed, 70% of the huge mopane trees near Third Bridge were gone, often lying supine and sprouting brush.

My father said this was perhaps the most magnificent stand of cathedral mopane he had seen – likening them to the old oak forests of Europe in his notebooks.  As had happened in Chobe several decades before, almost every Acacia nigrescens that we passed was dead or damaged as elephant populations pushed ever deeper into the Okavango delta.

People may not worry too much about mere plants if the alternative is to deal with the elephant ‘problem.’ But with elephants constituting 92% of the large mammal biomass in Chobe by 2011, this imposes costs in terms of the other animals and the loss of palatable species and habitats.

Tsessebe are far rarer than elephants, but used to be the favoured species for bush rations by scientists like my father, because they were numerous in Chobe and Moremi. He measured every one he shot and, writing a detailed paper about them claimed, with a grin, that he was a world expert – on tssesebe. Tssesebe thrive in ecotones, between the woodlands and the grasslands.

Elephants destroy these edges through tree destruction and shrub encroachment. With these sharp ecotones between woodlands and grasslands now largely gone, so therefore are the tssesebe.

Always learning from local people and history, my father put together a history of the elephants in Botswana, which I have summarised from his memoirs. Before 1912, A. G. Stigand, District Commissioner, explored and mapped Ngamiland District extensively for 10 years. He stated categorically that there were then no elephant or buffalo in the area. 

Chobe District also had very few elephants. Several early hunters recorded their explorations in northern Botswana. In 1853, Chapman found about 250 elephant near the Shinamba hills in the south east of what is now the Chobe National Park, but he found no elephants north of this all the way to the Linyanti River. 

Courtney Selous hunted and explored the south bank of the Chobe in 1874. Along the entire Chobe riverfront between Kasane and Ngoma, he found about a hundred elephant, shooting a number of them.

Elephants were uncommon. This does not imply that there were no elephants in north eastern Botswana and the eastern Caprivi prior to the mid-1940s, comprising a few as they were certainly know there before then, but apparently only in small scattered herds.

Nonetheless, elephant were uncommon, and the ecology was arguably a lot healthier than it is today. My father tracked down and interviewed several elderly Bushmen who had grown up around the source of the Ngwezuma River, which is now in the centre of the park. According to them, elephant were unknown to the Bushmen living in the east of the Chobe Game Reserve for several generations, at least until the mid-1940s.  Then, the “country filled with elephant” in a single year.

By 1963, Pat Hepburn, the park warden and our neighbour in Kasane, counted an average 497 sets of tracks along the ‘main’ Chobe road each day in 1963. This increased to 619 by 1966, an increase of at least 20% although 1966 was a wet year when many of the pans held water late into the dry season and elephants did not need to move to the river.

Well-used elephant paths now linked Wankie (Hwange) National Park to Chobe, as the rapidly growing elephant population in Hwange spilled over into Botswana.

In the early 1930s, when the warden of Hwange, Ted Davidson, started pumping water for elephants in the early 1030s, he estimated there were 2,000 elephants. However, Zimbabwe’s elephant population exploded from only 4,000 in 1900 to over 76,000 by 1991. Culling some 46,775 animals to save the vegetation caused only a minor blip in the inexorable increase in elephant numbers and the accompanying habitat destruction.

The Chobe-Hwange elephant population now numbers some 200,000-250,000 animals, and has spread into Namibia, Angola and western Zambia. Interestingly, this was not the primary elephant population in the early and mid-20th century, which were a different sub population, centred on the Tuli Block and the Limpopo River, in what was then called the ‘Tati Concession.’

This land on the borderlands of the Bechuanaland Protectorate near Francistown, was granted to Sir John Swinburne by the Ndebele King Lobengula in the late 19th century, in the region of Francistown, and was incorporated into Botswana in 1911.

In good rainfall years, elephants were seen and reported along the northern fringe of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, apparently travelling west to Lake Ngami and north to the Shinamba hills. The Bechuanaland authorities set up a special unit to eliminate the survivors in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

In an irony shared with many countries in Africa, Botswana’s Elephant Control Unit, run by Pat Bromfield and John Benn, evolved into the Game Department and finally today’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks.

My father was employed by the FAO Africa Special Project to plan and map Chobe and northern Botswana, and to create this new department, together with the former chief game warden of Uganda, Lawrence Tennant, and my father’s good friend Alec Campbell the anthropologist. 

In 1963, his FAO boss, Dr Thane Riney, who was establishing projects all over Africa, described the wildebeest, zebra, gemsbok and springbok around western Makgadikgadi Pans as ‘the largest herds of plains game left in Africa today,’ the Serengeti notwithstanding.

My father’s interviews with old residents of Botswana, both black and white, often mention springbok treks. A number of authors from the late 19th and early 20th Century in South Africa describe hundreds of thousands of springbok swarming for hundreds of miles, consuming all the vegetation in their path.

Conwright-Schreiner, who wrote one of the most authentic accounts of the treks in 1925, observed 50, 000 springbok using binoculars from a single point in a trek that covered 130 by 15 miles. 

Davis (1921) describes ‘100 million head’ from part of a trek through which he drove for 47 miles, and where the shooting of thousands of animals did not seem to reduce their number.  The 1950 trek took place on a front of at least 200 miles and took three days to pass Tshabong. 

The truly spectacular springbok migrations are not the only Botswana phenomenon that has passed into the realms of history. 

My father’s memoirs offer a glimpse into Botswana’s wildlife as it used to be. Having also worked in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, he was at pains to emphasise that the well-grassed Kalahari was the last ‘natural’ desert in the world, with regular sightings of springbok, gemsbok, hartebeest, and less frequently, eland. This was interspersed with occasional but vast herds of mobile antelope, mainly wildebeest or hartebeest, probably exceeding 100,000 head.

At least a quarter of a million wildebeest were recorded on the open grassland around the Makgadikgadi pans from the mid-1930s to the late 1950s, until the population crashed between 1962 and 1965. 

Waking up in his tent on the Makgadigadi after a spectacular rainstorm, my father recalled one of the most spectacular scenes of his life – in the crystal clean air, his tent was surrounded by over 25,000 wildebeest and zebra, 1,000 springbok, a handful of hartebeest and one hyaena.  As we discuss the future of Botswana’s wildlife industry, it does us well to remember that what we see today, spectacular as it can be, is but a ragged remnant of the pulsing wilderness and extravagant wildlife phenomena that my father enjoyed but sixty years ago.

To return to the facts. The elephant population in northern Botswana has increased from a few thousands in the 1940s to some 130,000 elephant, four or even six times the sustainable carrying capacity.

We can argue all day about carrying capacity, but damage began to occur when there were perhaps 15,000 elephants in Botswana. Comparatively, the two million hectare Kruger National Park experienced a significant loss of trees in some habitats with a mere 3,500 elephants compared to 18,000 today.  

Very few national parks in the world can compete with Chobe’s list of 38 species of large mammal species, spanning the abundance of wildlife diversity of semi-arid savannas as well as the desert-adapted species of the northern fringes of the Kalahari.

Elephants are putting this at risk. Even before we consider the conflicts they cause as they spill into areas of human habitation, they are grossly simplifying age-adapted and fragile ecosystems, with a loss of plant and even large mammal species. The ecosystem is now under serious threat in the nearby Hwange National Park, with up to 3,000 elephants using some waterholes each day. Mark Butcher notes that once magnificent herds of 100 sable, 3-4,000 buffalo, and 500 eland are no more – they simply cannot compete with elephants.


Botswana now has at least 130,000 elephant in an area that, ecologically, should probably have only 25,000-50,000, and certainly had far less than this only a few decades ago. The natural increase is 6,500 additional elephants each year. If 10,000 elephants are culled every year, it will take 15 years to get down to 50,000 elephants, and if 20,000 are culled it will take six years. These challenges are difficult to contemplate. But not contemplating them is also irresponsible, as it dooms vast habitats and the species that live in them, not to mention the enhanced risks caused by climate change. Botswana faces tough choices and massive economic opportunities, but the debate is not helped by the amount of emotion and mis-information in the international press. The hardest choice is what to do about 130,000 elephants in a habitat that should have only 50,000 or perhaps as few as 15,000.

In a decision that is quite understandably deeply affected by emotion, what should Botswana do with its elephants? What are the ecological and economic facts, and what choices does Botswana have?

First off, elephant are clearly not endangered, although the world’s largest elephant population is rapidly becoming a serious threat to itself, and certainly to Botswana’s responsibility to conserve biodiversity.

The simplest choice – a no brainer, really – is the reintroduction of safari hunting, albeit in ways that are directly aligned with the needs of rural people. However, this does not solve the problem because safari hunting has a negligible impact on elephant numbers but, as we discuss below, is a powerful way of creating more wildlife habitat.

The more tricky issue is the management of elephants in park, which are legally created for biodiversity conservation. Yellowstone experienced enormous ecological benefits from returning its apex predator – the wolf – to the system, but in Africa we have removed this apex predator which, for nearly four million years has been us, the hunter-gather. Without predation, elephants in national parks are unnaturally sedentary and concentred, causing habitat changes akin to those caused by Yellowstone’s elk herds, but at a much large scale.

Ecosystems in hunting blocks in Southern Africa are often in much better shape that in nearby protected areas, and Yellowstone shows how the reintroduction of wolves has re-created dynamic grazing and browsing patterns through restored predator avoidance behaviour. At the risk of being branded a conservation heretic, would judicious hunting in national parks actually be a good thing for biodiversity?

So what then are the options? The first option is to continue to ignore the problem, with major costs in terms of biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation, and conflicts with humans.

Reducing elephants by non-lethal means such as translocation or contraception is unrealistic given the numbers involved. The most palatable option would be to encourage neighbouring countries like Zambia and Angola to provide habitat for elephants. This will require building an elephant economy to persuade local people to accept elephants by making them as profitable as possible, through bold policy reform and massive investment. Southern Africa has demonstrated that making wildlife a profitable land use option has played a massive role in the recovery of our wildlife.

Ignoring the facts, this model is opposed by many conservationists; they make the false presumption that our wildlife is a global resource in which they have a powerful say, with little or no accountability for outcomes or the associated costs.

To succeed in expanding wildlife habitat we need to “maximise the value of wildlife to landholders,” by devolving wildlife proprietorship to landholders and communities, with full rights to use, manage and sell wildlife.

To maximise the price of wildlife we need to encouraging hunting, trade in wildlife products, and tourism, oppose market restrictions, and ensure that 100% of this value is returned to landholders and communities. Neither Zambia nor Angola currently pursue such policies, while global strategies like banning trade or attacking hunting further undercut the potential for wildlife to pay for itself.

Moreover, contrary to perceptions, elephants are not very profitable. The price of trophy bulls may be high, but these are long-lived species so that offtake rates are low, usually well below one percent of the population.

This means that the viability of a sustainable elephant economy is questionable unless this in turn becomes a sustainable wildlife economy based on a full spectrum of wildlife and a full spectrum of uses.  This will require tens or, more likely, hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in the parks and tourism economy in the Kavango-Zambezi TFCA, coupled with sound wildlife utilisation policies in the buffer zones and corridors between these parks. The good news is that the data shows that such investments have a high return on investment in terms of job creation and economic growth.

However, again, we face a problem of perception and reality. More than 80% of the wildlife that now exists outside protected areas in Southern Africa is paid for by hunting, with ecotourism contributing less than five percent of the bill. Against our advice, CITES has already closed markets for some valuable wildlife products that could pay for more wildlife. Given the current international pressures to close markets for hunting, and how much some Botswana communities have suffered from such bans, how can we in true conscience expect poor rural people to place their livelihoods in the hands of an economy so prone to the influence of external special interest? 

This leaves a final, and probably unavoidable, option – culling.

It may seem callous, but the potential to build an industry around elephant products will also provide justification to ordinary Batswana to keep more space for elephants.

Before the so-called ivory ban in 1989, Zimbabwe had invested heavily in manufacturing elephant products. Meat was important to local people. Some ivory was exported but it was increasingly being carved at home, adding jobs and value by multiple factors. What few people know is that the most valuable aspect of the elephant economy was the skins – high quality leather converted into fashion objects – especially briefcases and cowboy boots – providing large numbers of jobs.

Botswana thus faces a number of decisions and obligations. At the top of all these is whether and how to reduce the elephant population to a sustainable number. Only the third and fourth option described above have any realistic chance of resolving the problem.

To sustain Botswana’s biodiversity, especially in the face of impending climate change, elephant culling is inevitable. However, culling comes with several obligations. The first is to maximise the value of any elephant products in terms of jobs and economic growth – to waste anything on a crowded planet is problematic.

The second is to ensure that the profitability of elephants is reinvested in the elephants and people that live with them. As my father said way back in the day, all conservation actions needs to be ecologically sustainable, economically viable, and socio-politically acceptable.

Perhaps the easiest way to increase space for elephants, and to pay for their conservation, is through trophy hunting.

Unfortunately, the current international narrative about safari hunting is deceptive, deceitful, and highly deleterious to African wildlife. Botswana is a case in point. Just before hunting was banned in Kenya in the 1977, big names in the hunting industry like John Lawrence, Harry Selby, Andrew Homberg, and Eric Rungrin relocated to Botswana.

Was the beginning of southern Africa’s hunting industry. By 1965, Botswana’s embryonic safari hunting industry was already contributing R54, 000 of the total R80, 000 earned from wildlife by government, with the costs of the Game Department being R60, 221. Controlled Hunting Areas also constituted a large and important share of Botswana’s conservation estate.  As with Teddy Roosevelt in America, hunters were often the real pioneers of conservation, becoming game rangers and establishing tourism companies. In southern African, hunting has paved the way for the recovery of wildlife and, even today, pays for about 80% of wildlife land. Because of its high requirements for scenery, wildlife and services, ecotourism is concentrated on about 5-10% of wildlife land. Moreover, photo-tourism and hunting can co-exist if carefully managed to land use, the well-being of communities, and the national economy.

Contrary to the misinformation spread in the press, wildlife numbers usually increase rapidly in areas set aside for hunting because of the protection provided by hunters and very low off-take rates. Botswana’s elephant population increased from less than 20, 000 to more than 130, 000, despite supporting a hunting industry for 60 years, major culling operations in Hwange National Park, and the dispersal of these elephants to repopulate parts of Angola and Namibia.

Hunting is a formidable conservation tool. The mathematics of trophy quota off-takes allow wildlife populations to grow rapidly while generating large amounts of money. With an off-take rate for trophy animals of 0.7% compared to elephant population growth rates of 5% or more, trophy hunting has an inconsequential impact on elephant populations, but provides a highly consequential contribution to the local economy, including anti-poaching and wildlife management. Furthermore, hunting itself needs limited regulation where hunters have long-term tenure over an area. The market is highly informed and strongly dis-incentivises over-utilisation, because any outfitter that sells sub-par trophies will quickly ruins the reputation of his outfitting company or area.

The media storm on canned lions, arrogant hunters, and so on, is a major distraction from the search for positive conservation outcomes. The critical issue is the flow and governance of revenues from hunting and, indeed, tourism. They key to successful conservation is to return 100% of the value of the animals (e.g. trophy fees) to the areas and communities that produce them. This provides a sound financial foundation to pay for wildlife and wildlife land, and sets off a booming wildlife sector in which outfitters make their profits from outfitting services, and governments benefit from economic growth and taxes. If conservationists were truly concerned about wildlife, they would achieve far more by promoting (not closing) markets and ensuring financial transparency so that landholders and communities get the best possible for their wildlife.

Special interests have tried to create alarm by claiming that ecotourists will boycott Botswana if trophy hunting or culling is introduced. This is not the case. The key is competent wildlife management. Tourism boomed in Zimbabwe in the 1980s and 1990s at the same time as hunting and community wildlife utilisation was expanding, and thousands of elephants were culled. Indeed, tourism and hunting play a synergistic role in landscape conservation, with the tourism and hunting industries in the whole region expanding together. Interestingly, my only interview with a regular visitor to Botswana reveals that he no longer visits Botswana’s parks because he cannot stand to see so much environmental destruction.

There is huge potential to promote community development and wildlife conservation together. The critical issue is community governance, so that wildlife income is used fairly and transparently, and so that e and every household that is expected to live with elephants and other wildlife benefit from them directly.

At the time of Botswana’s hunting ban, I was conducting experiential research with several communities and support organizations in Botswana. The USAID-funded NRMP Project had assisted communities to get 15-year leases for the wildlife on their land, and to sell hunting and tourism for good money. However, the issue of community governance had been neglected; a couple of the smaller communities were doing well, but in the majority of CBNRM communities the people claimed that while the “committees were eating” they were getting very little. Fingers were being pointed at ‘irresponsible’ communities, but the real culprit was the absence of clear governance compliance monitoring, guidelines or capacity-building.

The well-governed Sankuyo community was one of the exceptions. The community earned Pula 4 million annually, mainly from elephant hunting. It built houses for destitute members, and invested in water supplies and toilets for the community. Recognising the importance of individual cash benefits, elderly people were given cash allowances, while almost every family benefited from jobs financed by wildlife income. Hunting provided large quantities of meat and jobs, with some additional jobs in tourism.

Detailed income and expenditure data collected from every household showed that wildlife provided some 60% of the community economy, with the remainder from jobs in town, remittances, and government poverty grants. In this dry area, agriculture was a non-starter. Nonetheless, most families had food to eat every day, at least until the hunting ban. 

The hunting ban crashed the GDP of Sankuyo by more than 40%, which is more catastrophic than the economic collapses in Zimbabwe and Venezuela. Sankuyo had climbed out of extreme poverty through the wildlife economy, and could reliably feed themselves. This community was beginning to model the effectiveness of a sustainable wildlife economy. The hunting ban flung them into destitution overnight.

Anticipating this catastrophe, I was working with the Sankuyo community on an alternative economic plan. Most land use plans were written by biologists, and neglected issues such as the economic development of communities.

Being located on the edge of the Okavango Delta, roughly half of Sankuyo’s land has strong potential for tourism while the other half is only suitable for hunting.

Despite the claims that we hear about ecotourism, our data showed that it contributed less than 20% of the community’s wildlife economy, compared to more than 80% from hunting. Tour operators were also far less engaged in community affairs and wildlife management than hunters. 

This did not need to be the case. First, inept governance of the tourism operations in the area was allowing serious underperformance, with few community benefits. Second, the current tourism strategy of high-fee foreign tourism is questionable, except when used judiciously. Our economic models showed that Sankuyo, and indeed Botswana’s economy, could increase jobs and income many fold by using half its area for a substantial three-star tourism lodge, while continuing hunting in less attractive habitats.

Land in Botswana should be allocated following economic and ecological principles, not according to who tells the best story. Tourism generates high revenues from prime areas, but is quite useless as a tool for maintaining connectivity in the other 90% or more of the landscape where tourists would never go because it is too hot, too remote, or too harsh.

Only hunting can manage and finance these vast landscapes. Hunting thrives in vast areas of northern Botswana that are too harsh for tourism, together with the game water supplies and wildlife protection provided by hunters (e.g., CT 1,2,3 NG42, 41, 43 and 47). Just as prioritising tourism in prime areas in the Okavango Delta is economically sensible, ignoring the value of hunting in these marginal lands represents poor land use planning.

If Botswana is really to become a major wildlife country again, this will require maximising the wildlife economy through careful economic planning that includes a far more diverse and imaginative tourism sector, trophy hunting, and wildlife products and their manufacture.

High-end tourism is clearly important. It is highly profitable for tour operators, far less so for communities, but makes tourism possible where costs are high because governments are not investing in parks, wildlife management, infrastructure and communications. However, wildlife tourism that excludes all but the mega-rich is problematic.

So is the environmental footprint and social perception of extreme pampering, such as a plunge pool for every tent. This highlights the fact that tourism, not hunting, is the ‘consumptive’ activity. Tourism requires game-viewing tracks, water use, solid-waste disposal, carbon footprints, and so on. By contrast, hunting may consume a few adult male animals, but generates far more income per unit of energy or water consumed, and may reduce the consumption of plants or leave the ecosystem in better balance.

While reintroducing hunting is a no-brainer, Botswana could expand its tourism economy substantially by diversifying and expanding its tourism product with new policies that promote three-star tourism in some prime wildlife areas, including a focus on the middle class African market.

In South Africa, for example, the greater Kruger ecosystem generates R6.6 billion in GDP, R3.4 billion in wages, and R 1.5 billion in taxes. This is twice the size of Botswana’s entire P2.52 billion tourism sector. I am not implying East Africa style minivans and chaos, but a well-planned tourism sector with disciplined and proactive management based on performance metrics that include wildlife conservation, jobs and economic growth, and careful investment in infrastructure and wildlife management.

Building a wildlife economy requires a careful combination of ecotourism, hunting, meat production and wildlife product.

Policy makers should pay more attention to economics, community, and biodiversity, and less to the shrill misinformation of the recent past. Economically speaking, there is no reason that the incredible wildlife spectacle that Botswana used to have, and still has in parts, cannot be re-created. Just as Botswana will need to make bold decisions about elephants, there is much to be gained by making informed tradeoffs between wildlife and livestock.

This depends on cultural and political decisions about the cattle industry that, to a significant extent, has squeezed Botswana’s wildlife into a few remaining corners. The emergence of game farming in the region over the past three decades is an economic response by landholders to the growing profitability of wildlife, and the declining returns from livestock.

The price of livestock, like most agricultural commodities, has been declining steadily since the 1950s. Economic terms of trade are moving very much in favour of tourism and wildlife, and against commodity production, with family farmers the world over going out of business.

In Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia wildlife earns as much as four times that of livestock, with four times as many jobs and much higher skill levels and wages. Ironically, wildlife saved many cattle ranchers from bankruptcy and environmental decline. In the face of climate change, Botswana may be facing a similar choice at a much larger scale. 


My recommendation would be for Botswana to aim to quadruple the size of its wildlife economy in the next decade to at least P10-20 billion. The easiest step is to reintroduce trophy hunting. Local communities clearly need to become a primary beneficiary, which will require clearer, bolder CBNRM policy, with more focus on community proprietorship and governance.

There are enormous gains to be had by re-thinking the tourism strategy, guided by a policy focus on maximising jobs and economic growth while minimising the sector’s environmental footprint.

The singular focus on high-end foreign tourism needs to be critically examined, encouraging major investment in mid-level tourism and, indeed, on the growing middle income African market. Sustained expansion of tourism will require much better planning and maintenance of tourism areas and hubs like Maun and Kasane.

Managing excess elephants judiciously in a politically heated arena will take powerful leadership and vision, backed by careful science and calculation. Bold policy could return Botswana to the ecosystems of old by building a multi-billion-pula wildlife economy in which the whole country, and especially rural people, have a genuine stake and livelihood option. Without hunting, or even culling, this is not an option.

The hardest decision, politically, is what to do about having far too many elephants. Avoiding hard decisions has only made this decision even harder, with a high risk of ecological catastrophe not least for the elephants themselves.

In the 1980s, Zimbabwe turned a problem into an asset, culling 46,775 elephants, while enhancing its reputation as a global leader in conservation, with rapidly expanding wildlife populations and a tourism industry. This requires achieving national consensus around a well-articulated policy that was based on economic, social and environmental goals, and implementing this competently and with integrity.

With the knowledge of hindsight, there is no reason why Botswana cannot do even better.

If Botswana faces momentous decisions about its elephants, it also faces a momentous decision about land use and the cattle industry, in which it has invested so much over so many decades. It can put off these politically difficult decisions. But it can also take the future in hand with carefully considered scenario planning.

The price of agricultural commodities, including beef, will continue to decline, while the volume and price of tourism and wildlife will increase. The incidence of drought and disease are also likely to increase in the face of climate change and global interconnectedness. Thus, the economics of land use would guide Botswana strongly in the direction of resurrecting the amazing wildlife spectacle that my father was so fortunate to witness.

This would provide far more jobs and economic growth than the current policy focus on livestock and agricultural commodity production. However, these decisions are as much cultural as economic. Like land use economics, Botswana’s culture is also going through rapid changes. While their aging parents placed a considerable cultural premium on weekends at cattle posts, most people now live in urban areas, and Botswana’s young people may prefer cell-phones and tourism jobs. Prompted by the elephant crisis, is this now the time to think big and make bold decision about the future of the vast interconnected landscapes of the Kalahari, the Okavango and Chobe?

*Dr Brian Child is an Associate Professor at the University of Florida where he focuses on wildlife economy and governance, and higher education in African leadership development. With a D.Phil from Oxford about the economics of wildlife and livestock, he grew up in Botswana, served private landholders and the CAMPFIRE programme for Zimbabwe Parks for 12 years, and established CBNRM and park management systems in Zambia for 10 years. His current interest is building a $ 30 billion wildlife economy in southern Africa by 2020.