Global warming intensifies pressure to profit from wildlife before habitat loss depletes species
GABERONE, Botswana; HARARE, Zimbabwe; DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania––Big as they are, the 60 elephants whose lives were auctioned at Bobonong Kgotla, Botswana on February 7, 2020 may be the least of the casualties from attempts by the governments of Botswana and Tanzania to buy their way out of climate-related economic distress by sacrificing wildlife––some animals for trophies, but many times more for newly legalized commerce in bushmeat [wildlife].
By far the majority of the victims will be smaller, lesser known species, who do not attract either trophy hunters or non-lethal wildlife watchers, but are together the foundation of the regional wildlife ecology that supports many of the animals whom tourists pay most to see, including lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, jackals, caracals, and spectacular birds of prey.
Elephant bids fell short
The elephant auction drew international attention, and considerable denunciation from animal advocates and conservationists. In the end, however, it was scarcely the money-maker that Botswana president Mokgweetsi Masisi promised in 2018, campaigning for election on the promise that his party would re-open trophy hunting, closed by his predecessor, Ian Khama.
Botswana auctioned the rights to shoot elephants to trophy hunting concessionaires in seven lots of 10 elephants each. The first six lots sold at prices ranging from $33,000 to $43,000 per elephant, but demand faded by the end of the sale, conducted by the firm Auction It Ltd., and the seventh lot was not sold because no one offered even the reserve price of $20,000 per elephant to acquire it.
More elephants to be sold
The elephants whose lives were on the block were only the first of 272 elephants scheduled to be shot in Botswana in 2020, of whom 202 are to be shot by foreign hunters. The remaining 70 elephant hunting permits are reserved for Botswanians.
“In addition to the cost of the hunting rights, the tourists must pay the fee for a professional hunter to accompany them, as well as taxidermy costs,” explained Antony Sguazzin for Bloomberg News. “The hunting season will last from April to September, spanning the dry winter when the African bush is thinner and animals are easier to find.
“By lifting the hunting ban, Botswana brought itself in line with its neighbors,” Sguazzin continued. “The number of hunting licenses are below the 400 cap it set itself, and compares with 500 licenses in Zimbabwe and 90 in Namibia.”
Elephant population declining
South African cinematographer Dereck Joubert took a more critical view of the situation.
“The World Travel & Tourism Council for 2019 reports that one in seven of all dollars in Botswana comes from tourism,” Joubert explained in a January 30, 2020 written statement. “Tourism generates 84,000 jobs, or nearly 9% of total employment, making up more than 13% of the entire economy.
“Wildlife tourism is by far the largest drawcard for foreign tourists,” Joubert continued. “The World Travel & Tourism Council reports that 73% of spending came from international travelers.
“Many argue that there are too many elephants in Botswana and that hunting them will help to reduce an excess population that is increasing,” Joubert acknowledged. “However, the African Elephant Status Report published [by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature] in 2016 shows that, in fact, the population of elephants in the country has decreased by some 15%.”
“Use them or lose them”
Botswana currently claims 130,000 elephants, still the most of any nation, with a carrying capacity of only 50,000. Zimbabwe claims 84,000, the second most, also with a claimed carrying capacity of 50,000.
To many residents of drought-stricken Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania, where elephant trophy hunting never stopped, despite international embargoes on exporting tusks, the question of whether elephants should be hunted distills down to “use them or lose them.”
Multiple threats to elephants
Large as their elephant populations purportedly are, they are at risk from the combination of diminishing habitat, scarce water, conflict with farmers, and––to a varying extent, region by region, ivory poaching.
Subsistence farmers who receive little or none of the revenue from either trophy hunting or tourism, often mistrust official explanations that elephants are a national asset, and tend to have no incentive to cooperate in combatting poachers.
Poachers, on the contrary, are often perceived as allies in preventing crop destruction and removing a deadly menace from proximity to homes and family.
Thus, even if there is much less money to be made from selling hunting rights to trophy hunters than the Masisi government of Botswana hoped for, allowing at least some elephants to be shot helps to quell rural unrest.
Because “Drought conditions had struck Botswana, affecting its terrain and resulting in wild animals moving away from their regular habitats in search of water and food,” the Botswana government “initially considered the option of instituting ‘limited culling’ of elephants, and having their meat canned in order to be used as pet food,” reported Poloko Tau, a freelance journalist working out of Johannesburg, South Africa.
Demand for canned elephant meat as pet food in Botswana would be nil. Most dogs in Botswana––as in most of Africa––roam free, begging and scavenging, seldom if ever seeing commercially manufactured pet food of any sort.
But where elephants are relatively abundant, in contrast to the paucity of elephants across most of their range of less than 100 years ago, there is huge demand from much of the growing human population for effective elephant population control, and even more so if the perceived elephant surplus can be made into money.
Yet there is also skepticism about schemes to sell elephants for ivory and trophies, which tend to channel large amounts of money through relatively few hands, without much reaching ordinary citizens.
“[Zimbabwean] President Emmerson Mnangagwa reacted with fury to the August 2019 decision by the Geneva-based Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species [CITES] forum to refuse the country permission to trade in elephant ivory,” recalled Zimbabwean freelance journalist Cyril Zenda two months later.
Punished for success?
“Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia had proposed that ivory from elephants in their region be traded,” Zenda explained.
“The general sentiment in these countries – which have the largest herds of elephants and other wild animals in the world – is that by being denied the right to trade in the products of some of these animals, they are in effect being punished for the success of their conservation efforts.”
However, as Zenda later noted, Zimbabwean wildlife appears to have benefitted much more over the past 20 years from favorable geography than from “conservation efforts,” and some of those purported “largest herds” may exist more on paper than in reality.
Either way, the geography is now much less favorable than it once was.
Said Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Management Authority spokesperson Tinashe Farawo, “In areas like Hwange National Park, where the largest population of elephants is found, there is no water and that area depends 100% on borehole [well] water.”
“Corruption & poor resource management”
“On paper,” conceded Zenda, “this is a valid case, but Zimbabweans suspect that it could be a trick by the cash-strapped government to turn the country’s huge wildlife resource base into another revenue stream.
“Given the government’s track record of corruption and poor resource management, there are real fears that even if the country were to be allowed to monetize wildlife resources, very little, if anything, would benefit citizens, let alone go toward the advertised wildlife conservation goals,” Zenda concluded.
Botswana raffles hunting rights
This is why much of Botswana in September 2019 welcomed the first of a planned series of raffles of hunting rights to ordinary Botswanians, not foreign concessionaires. Hunting permits had reportedly not been sold to Botswanians in more than 10 years,
“At least 30,076 people registered to participate in the raffles across the various species on offer, which included impala, baboons, ostriches, warthogs, steenboks, duikers, wildebeest and kudu,” reported Botswanian freelance journalist Boniface Keakabetse. “At least 5,990 registered for the raffle for eight elephant licenses.”
Every species but elephants could be resold
The elephant licenses sold on that occasion could not be transferred to anyone else. Trophies and ivory could not be sold for export.
“On the hunt,” said Keakabetse, the winners “have to have a professional hunter and professional guide, as well as a tracking team and Department of Wildlife & National Parks personnel with them. These conditions will be enforced strictly with all types of penalties and censures in place. It is a costly undertaking, not to mention that the winners of the raffle have to pay for the actual elephant hunting license. The benefits outside of the ‘thrill of the hunt’ are not very clear.”
But no such restrictions inhibited the winners of the right to kill the other species. Either the permits or the remains of those animals could be sold, whether to trophy hunters, local bushmeat consumers, or to wildlife gourmands among the 6,000 or more Chinese nationals now resident in Botswana, many of them managing development projects.
“Government has endorsed bushmeat”
Appeasing rural unrest and temporarily assuaging poverty by allowing commerce in bushmeat is even more blatant in Tanzania.
“The government has endorsed the establishment of special butcheries specifically for bushmeat,” reported Edward Qorro for the Tanzania Daily News in Dar es Salaam, the capital city, on February 10, 2020.
As announced by Tourism & Natural Resources minister Hamisi Kigwangalla,” Oorro explained, “The move is aimed at enabling Tanzanians to harvest wild animals for selling and consumption, per directive of President John Magufuli during his tour of Rubondo Island National Park on Lake Victoria last year.
“Whoever wishes to start selling bushmeat needs to have a special ranch where he’ll harvest and sell the wild animals at designated areas,” said Kigwangalla.
“Tanzanians who wish to open such butcheries will be given special licenses to run their businesses, while the harvesting of game meat will only be done by professional hunters,” Kigwangalla added.
Year-round open season
Observed Oorro, “Unlike trophy hunting, which is done seasonally, hunting wild animals for their flesh will be conducted throughout the year.”
The licensing requirements give the Tanzanian scheme the superficial appearance of following the so-called North American model of wildlife management, in which conservation is funded by license fees and seasonal bag limits suppress wildlife losses.
In actuality, however, enforcing bag limits without seasonal restrictions as well has seldom if ever succeeded.
The lack of seasonal restrictions means there is little, if anything, in the Tanzanian scheme to differentiate it from the unregulated market hunting that in the U.S. had by 1910 exterminated the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet, nearly extirpated the North American bison and beaver, and reduced populations of other formerly common “game” species so severely that even whitetail deer and varying hares had to be reintroduced to Connecticut and Ohio, respectively.