When Botswana banned hunting in 2014, proponents of ‘sustainable utilisation’ of wildlife claimed the government was pandering to emotions and ignoring science. The decision, they said, was an example of foreign animal rights activists and organisations influencing conservation practices to the detriment of African people and wildlife.
Following Botswana’s hunting ban, stories and studies emerged claiming negative effects on local communities and elephants. Joseph Mbaiwa published a study demonstrating how local communities lost income, employment opportunities and social services. The loss of benefits, he claimed, translated to negative perceptions of wildlife that led to increased elephant poaching.
Fast forward to the elections in 2019. Mbaiwa’s study proved crucial in winning over support for a reversal of the hunting ban which the new president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, proceeded to do. Sustainable use proponents rejoiced. Science, they claimed, had won out over emotions.
However, quite the opposite is true. Science has been pushed aside for the benefit of profit-seeking individuals. Claims that hunting was needed to reduce the elephant population, save ecosystems and reduce human-elephant conflict were supported largely by emotions. Botswana doesn’t have an elephant problem.
The Great Elephant Census (GEC) found Botswana’s population numbered far fewer than the previously estimated 250,000 elephants. It determined Botswana only had about 130,000 elephants and there had been a 15% decline since 2010. Research also showed there was no ecological reason to reduce elephant numbers.
The idea that hunting elephants reduces conflict with rural communities has been around for a long time. However, researchers argue that lethal conflict resolution is controversial and questionable. Hunting elephants can also cause them lasting psychological damage that promotes aggressive behaviour towards humans.
This raises a question about Mabaiwa’s study arguing for lifting the ban when he is heavily biased towards hunting and has financial ties to the industry. His business partner is the US hunter and investor Jeff Rann of 777 Ranch and Rann Safaris. Rann held concessions in Botswana before the hunting ban was lifted but was reassured of the government’s plans to change the policy by Mbaiwa back in 2018. The pair have since bought a lodge in the Okavango area in a joint venture.
Unsurprisingly, Rann won two elephant hunting packages for the upcoming season during Botswana’s auction. So we have a scientist whose study was influential in overturning a hunting ban directly profiting from the decision. This constitutes a conflict of interest and raises serious questions about the integrity of Mbaiwa’s previous studies. And of course his future studies will also need to be heavily scrutinised.
It gets worse. Mabaiwa is a member of a research team that submitted grant proposals to the world’s biggest hunt association, Safari Club International, seeking funding for projects dedicated to furthering the sustainable use cause. The first grant asked for $400,000 over a four-year period to promote the benefits of hunting for leopard conservation.
The proposal states one of the goals of the programme is to ensure hunting maintains its role as a “critical conservation practice”. The team plans to use the data from the study to combat opposition to the hunting industry.
“The goals of the program are to ensure sustainable populations of leopards in Africa and maintain sustainable use hunting as a critical component of conservation for leopards and many other species in eastern and southern Africa. Specifically, we want to address perceived threats to leopard hunting by providing scientific data about abundance, critical population demographics (e.g., birth rates, sex ratios, and mortality), and the influence of regulated hunting.”
Success of this project will be defined as specifically benefiting Safari Club members and the sustainable use industry in Africa. This means hunting stays on the table as a conservation tool and seeks to ensure that no further restrictions are placed on leopard trophy imports or exports. Direct benefits are expected for hunters and concession holders but nothing is listed for community members.
“Successful implementation of this program will produce tangible results for leopard populations, Safari Club members (particularly those that hunt internationally), the sustainable use industry in Africa (e.g., concession holders and professional hunters), and other species in Africa that benefit from sustainable use conservation.”
Goals include strategies that will:
“Prevent further restrictions on leopard trophy imports or exports through CITES, the US Endangered Species Act or European Union.”
The second grant asked for about $48,000 to further research the effects of the previous hunting ban. This project expects to come away with data that can be used to promote the importance of hunting for conservation and rural communities:
“Local communities will gain a more accurate understanding of the importance of safari hunting tourism to their community and local tourism operators and wildlife managers will gain a greater understanding of the impacts of safari hunting tourism on local support and actions towards wildlife conservation and management.
The issue with these grant proposals isn’t necessarily that they would be funded by Safari Club International. The biggest concern is how these proposals are written with the explicit intention of benefiting the sustainable use industries. This shows a clear bias and will impact the scientific integrity of the projects.
Science should be the driving force behind wildlife trade and hunting decisions. However, the opposite is true when it comes to Botswana’s policies. Profit-seeking individuals are driving the direction of scientific studies. This is especially concerning when the general public is told to listen to science and not their emotions. How can we expect people to support conservation practices if they can’t trust scientists?
The Botswana government is clearly alarmed by moves in the UK to block wildlife trophy imports. This week it sent a letter to the UK Department For Environment, Food And Rural Affairs (DEFRA) saying a ban would “undermine our conservation strategy”. It based its appeal on a number of points and claims, none of which are scientifically sound:
The number and high levels of human-elephant conflict and the consequent impact on livelihoods was increasing;
Predators appear to have increased and were causing a lot of damage as they kill livestock in large numbers;
There is a negative impact of the hunting suspension on livelihoods, particularly for community-based organisations that were previously benefitting from consumptive utilisation; and
The general consensus from those consulted was that the hunting ban should be lifted.
Jared Kukura is freelance wildlife conservation writer based in California. He founded Wild Things Initiative to highlight the negative ramifications of the wildlife trade and hunting industries. His work can be found in the ‘Journal of African Elephants’.