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Conservation hysteria or Conservation fact?

Botswana re-introduces hunting to a chorus of criticism.

After Ian Khama stepped down as President of Botswana to be replaced by Mokgweetsi Masisi some of the corner stone "environmental" policies of Ian Khama were immediately up for review. Political gamesmanship or sound conservation strategy?

Ex President Ian Khama’s commitment to wildlife is incontestable and in recognition of this he is a board member of Conservation International. But it is legitimate to ask whether his flagship policy of banning hunting achieved its aim. This is especially true following the barrage of criticism from certain international Conservation NGOs and media outlets of the decision to re-introduce hunting. His environmental legacy can be summarised fairly simply:

  • The rolling back of community management rights over wildlife for both flora and fauna;
  • The banning of hunting everywhere except on privately owned game ranches.

The first of these policy changes was promoted as being necessary on the grounds that communities were in some cases mismanaging the funds they were earning from their natural resource based enterprises and the second on the grounds that the wildlife resource was stated as being over exploited

There were undeniable problems in the management of community trusts. None of which were solved by simply removing management rights from local communities. The most significant result of this action was to remove any rewards to compensate for the risks of living close to wildlife. 

The ban on hunting and the reduction of community rights produced four significant changes:

  • The management of safari concessions lost two elements: Community partnership and the extensive control and management of land in hunting concessions. Due to the different management requirements of hunting and photographic safaris this latter opened up areas that were previously patrolled to a potential for an expansion of illegal activity.
  • Game ranches benefitted enormously, putting the exploitation of commercial hunting into the hands Botswana’s elites, some of whom in the Ghanzi District are reported to resort to illegally dropping fences to bring in trophy wildlife species for hunting from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR).
  • Poor inhabitants of Botswana, both Bushmen and others, lost an important access to meat through the withdrawal of the Special Game Licence system.
  • Anti-poaching became more aggressive and military at the very time local people’s incentives to support conservation had been greatly reduced, thus increasing the likelihood of conflict between locals and anti-poaching forces.

Did the hunting ban help Botswana’s wildlife?

Government of Botswana census data show that Elephant numbers rose from 60,902 based on the 1989-91 aggregated census data to 109,471 in 2003 and 207,545 in 2012, dropping dramatically to 130,450 two years later. EWB (Elephants without Borders), Chase et al (2018), state that there was no statistical change in elephant numbers from 2014 to 2018 and that they have been stable during that period. As Chase et al state, "When we restricted the 2018 data to only areas surveyed in the 2014 aerial survey of northern Botswana, we found that estimated numbers of elephants had increased slightly and non-significantly since 2014, from 122,634 ± SE of 5,101 in 2014 to 122,831 ± 4,769 on this survey (Z = 0.03, P = 0.98). By stratum, changes in elephant population sizes between 2014 and 2018 were highly variable, with substantial movements of elephants likely occurring between strata." It should be noted that these last two surveys concentrated on northern Botswana and were not national surveys thus potentially mitigating the size of any purported decline.

These data allow for both hunting and anti-hunting proponents to present their cases. For those in favour of hunting they can point to an increasing elephant population based on a start point of 1989-91, whilst those in favour of a ban can use the high point of 2012 to point to a rapid decline in numbers. However the hunting ban took effect two years after the high point was reached rendering it suspect to claim that the hunting ban in of itself contributed to the conservation of elephant numbers.

Table 1. Randomly selected wildlife data 1989 - 2012




































It is hard to draw specific conclusions from the wildlife data available from government sources. Both the emblematic species, elephant and buffalo, exhibit healthy population levels as do the majority of the plains’ game. Although the 2018 EWB survey shows a significant drop in elephant numbers they are still over double the 1989-91 levels. The surprising data here are for Springbok. No explanation is offered for the apparent decline in their numbers.

Wildlife data are hard to gather and not all surveys cover the same territory, especially those of EWB whose surveys focus on the elephant’s range, which they show to be expanding. A certain level of variation in numbers has therefore to be considered normal.

One of the more interesting observations from the Botswana Government’s data from their 2004 survey compares data from 1994 to 2003 and disaggregates the data to distinguish between populations within and outside of parks.

Table 2. Randomly selected wildlife data 1994 – 2003, within and outside national parks







































The protected area system does not appear, at first sight, to be offering the levels of conservation protection one would imagine when compared to the wildlife populations of areas shared with hunter gatherers, farmers, pastoralists and villagers. This would appear to be an area requiring greater analysis.

One of the elements of the EWB reported that was most commented on was the data on elephant poaching which some described as “a poaching frenzy”. The EWB report was careful to classify the carcasses found and did so as follows:

Table 3 EWB classification of elephant carcasses and numbers found





Fresh Still has flesh, giving the body a rounded appearance. Vultures probably present and ground still moist from body fluids. Likely to have died <1month ago).




Recent Rot patch and skin still present. Skeleton not scattered. Likely to have died <1 year ago).




Old Clean bones, skin usually absent, vegetation regrown in rot patch. Likely to have died >1 year ago).




Very old Bones scattered and turning grey. (Likely to have died up to 10 years ago.



I cannot judge whether these figures amount to a “poaching frenzy”. They certainly do not account for the difference in elephant numbers between 2012 and 2014-18.

Lifting the hunting ban

By lifting the ban on hunting in May this year enormous controversy was inevitably generated given both the popularity of the previous President in conservation circles and the media manipulated storm that clouded a rational review of EWB’s work.


The current President has justified the decision as follows:


“When my Government announced earlier this week [Thursday, May 23] that Botswana would be lifting its ban on elephant hunting, many people around the world, but especially in the U.S. and the UK, reacted with shock and horror. How could we do such a thing? What could possibly justify the wholesale slaughter of such noble and intelligent creatures? Is it really true that we intend to turn these magnificent animals into dog food?

All of these questions, and many more like them that have been raised in recent days, are understandable—understandable but misguided. The fact is, we in Botswana who live with and alongside the elephants yield to no one in our affection and concern for them, and we would never condone, no less promote, any of the terrible things those questions imply are in the offing. So let me explain what it is we are doing, and why.

To begin with, while it is true that we are lifting the ban on hunting, we are doing so in an extremely limited, tightly controlled fashion. We are not engaging in anything remotely like the culling of our elephant herds, and we are definitely not going to be using any elephants for pet food. Rather, after extensive consultations with local communities, scientists, and leaders of neighboring African states, we decided on a course of action that embodies three guiding principles—the need to conserve Botswana’s natural resources, the need to facilitate human-wildlife co-existence, and the need to promote scientific management of the country’s elephants and other wildlife species.

The hunting ban was originally put in place in 2014, ostensibly as a temporary measure, in response to reports of declines in some animal populations. But Botswana’s elephant population wasn’t at risk. To the contrary, while the number of elephants in all of Africa has been declining, Botswana’s elephant population has been exploding—from 50,000 or so in 1991 to more than 130,000 today—far more than Botswana’s fragile environment, already stressed by drought and other effects of climate change, can safely accommodate.

With elephants moving out of their usual range in search of food and water, there has been a sharp increase in the number of dangerous human-elephant interactions, one result of which has been widespread destruction of crops, livestock, and property. In the north, marauding elephants have slashed maize yields by three-quarters.

As an expert at the World Wildlife Fund recently noted, “A year’s livelihood can be destroyed in one or two nights by crop-raiding elephants.” Even worse, people have been injured and even killed by elephants roaming freely across Botswana’s unfenced parks and rural areas.

Adding to the problem is a sense of deep unhappiness about the hunting ban among rural people who felt they weren’t consulted when the ban was first imposed. Combined with the destructive impact of elephant overpopulation, this has transformed rural people’s traditional concern for wildlife into resentment, leading many to take up poaching.

So this is the problem that lifting the ban seeks to address. It’s not that the ban caused the huge increase in our elephant population. It’s that it has allowed elephants to move with impunity into once-hazardous inhabited areas, thus increasing the number of human-elephant conflicts and, not incidentally, the environmental and economic challenges faced by rural people.

The need to do something about the escalating level of human-elephant conflict was a central theme of the Kasane Elephant Summit I recently hosted for the leaders of Angola, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Collectively, the five southern African countries are home to more than 260 000 elephants in what we call the Kavango Zambezi Trans-frontier Area, and at our meeting we agreed that assuring the future of elephants in our region depends on our ability to ensure that elephants are an economic benefit, not a burden, to those who live side by side with them. To this end, we in Botswana will be encouraging community-based organizations and trusts to emphasize natural-resource conservation and tourism. Thus, we will be allocating more than half the elephant licenses we grant to local communities and instituting a series of strong measures designed to guarantee local people far more than just menial jobs, but rather a significant ownership stake in the tourism industry. 

In this way, we will restore the elephant’s economic value of elephants to rural populations. In turn, this will provide local communities with a strong incentive to protect elephants and other wildlife from habitat loss, poaching, and anything else that threatens their survival. In short, as they realize the economic benefits of wildlife resources, local communities will become increasingly committed to sustainable wildlife management and conservation—a commitment that will benefit both Botswana’s people and Botswana’s elephants.”

Time will tell which President has made the better choice. The new decision has been followed by the Botswana government’s release of more detail surrounding the lifting of the ban. These they describe as follows:

“(i) Essentially:

• Hunting will be allowed on a small, strictly controlled basis, with fewer than 400 elephant licenses to be granted annually, as has been approved by CITES.

• Priority will be given to Community Based Organizations (CBOs) and Trusts in allocation of hunting quotas (over 50% of quota to be given to CBOs and Trusts).

• Hunting will be re-instated only in designated Concession Hunting Areas (CHAs.)

• There will be equitable distribution of citizen hunting quota.

• Citizen hunting license shall not be transferable.

• An effective hunting quota allocation system shall be developed based on science;

• Animals to be included in the hunting quota shall be those currently reflected in Schedule 7 of the Wildlife and National Parks Act of 1992.

• Special game license will not be re-instated due to existence of other government social safety nets to cover for such

(ii) A legal framework that will create an enabling environment for growth of safari hunting industry will be developed;

(iii) The Botswana elephant population will be managed within its historic range;

(iv) An effective community outreach programme within the elephant range for Human Elephant Conflict mitigation will be undertaken;

(v) Strategically placed human wildlife conflict fences will be constructed in key hotspots areas;

(vi) Game Ranches will be demarcated to serve as buffers between communal and wildlife areas;

(vii) Compensation for damage caused by wildlife, ex gratia amounts and the list of species that attract compensation be reviewed; and other models that alleviate compensation burden on government be considered;

(viii) All wildlife migratory routes that are not beneficial to the Country’s conservation efforts will be closed;

(ix) The Kgalagadi south westerly antelope migratory route into South Africa will be closed by demarcating game ranches between the communal areas and Kgalagadi Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs).

6. In all the actions taken, whether for or against any recommendations, the guiding principles were: the need to conserve our natural resources, the need to facilitate human wildlife co-existence; and scientific management of our elephants and other wildlife species.

7. All the above notwithstanding, Government shall continue to monitor the situation and may cause for periodic review of the recommendation approved. In doing so, Government shall endeavour to consult the affected communities, community leadership, non-Governmental Organisations, etc.

8. Botswana Government is convinced that tourism can be fully exploited sustainably to benefit the economy.

Sustainable tourism calls for the development of tourism policies that assure the safeguarding of social, cultural and natural resources and guarantee that these assets can meet the needs of present and future populations and tourists.

It is for this reason that Government has also approved strategies for facilitating citizen participation in the tourism sector. The strategy has several models which advocate for, among others:

i) The allocation of existing vacant concessions and identified sites solely to citizen companies, joint ventures, community trusts and community of citizen consortia;

ii) Where existing concession operators issue more than 25% of shareholding to citizen companies, consortia, joint ventures or community trusts, a fixed period lease of 30 years be issued under the new leaseholding;

iii) Land allocated to citizens through tourism citizen economic empowerment model be used as collateral by allottees to secure shareholding and or partnerships.

Thank you.

[Felix Monggae]

An opinion piece by Nicholas Winer