March 21, 2019

Botswana would jeopardize its second largest industry by resuming trophy hunting of elephants, lions

Botswana is hurtling toward a dreadful and dangerous back-tracking on its national wildlife protection policy. The country’s president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, is considering the idea of repealing or weakening the southern African nation’s landmark and foresighted 2014 policy of forbidding the killing of wildlife, including by foreign trophy hunters.

The country’s leaders, who are undoubtedly motivated by good intentions to address human-wildlife conflicts, would do well to understand that in this era of social media, and increasing concern for the well-being of animals, that this could be a catastrophic economic decision. Such a turn-around will almost certainly harm the country’s large, lucrative, and surging industry of eco-tourism (already the country’s second biggest business).

Trophy hunters who trek to Africa don’t just want to bring home the tusks of an elephant or the head and mane of a lion. To a man, they also want to document images of the hunt – having their guide take a picture of the kneeling hunter over the slain creature, or record the kill on video. They often then post the images on social media or share them with friends.

This photographs and videos, once they inevitably get into the public domain, can then ricochet across the world in minutes. Decent people are appalled. The series of grisly and heartbreaking images of the bragging hunters killing these defenseless and often imperiled animals have already tarnished and exposed the subculture of competitive trophy hunting. These foreign hunters coming in to African nations often amass a large number of kills seeking awards within the fraternity, such as the “Africa Big Five” or “Cats of the World.”

It was a single picture of Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer and his guide over the slain Cecil that provoked a worldwide outcry over the killing of one of the continent’s most famous and studied lions. Palmer had lured Cecil from Hwange National Park, and then shot and injured him before finally finishing him off 12 hours later.

After the Palmer incident, United, Delta, and American Airlines declared they’d no longer transport in their cargo holds the trophies of the Africa Big Five (a lion, a leopard, an elephant, a rhino, and a Cape buffalo). Air Canada, Air France, British Airways, Emirates Airlines, and dozens of others did the same, deciding they’d no longer be the get-away vehicles for the on-going heist of Africa’s greatest living resources.

And just last week, a deeply disturbing video went viral displaying a hunter shooting a sleeping lion, also in Zimbabwe. The hunter, Guy Gorney of Illinois, killed the lion in 2011, but the video became public in recent days. The lion is long dead but the controversy is now alive, doing more reputational damage to Zimbabwe for allowing this kind of unsporting, sickening hunt of a threatened species.

Like any nation so dependent on tourism, the country must earn must earn the attention and affection of its prospective customers. As Americans, Britons, and others think about where they’ll spend their money to see elephants and lions and snap pictures of them, it’s not going to sit well with them if the country also enables this kind of reckless killing of beautiful and threatened wildlife. Wildlife enthusiasts have the option of trekking to countries that don’t allow this behavior, such as Kenya, Gabon, Rwanda, and for the last five years, Botswana. Customer service matters, and trophy hunting is the antithesis of that.

Apart from the matters of ethics and values, the economics of trophy hunting just no longer add up. The network of trophy hunters bent on slaying rare species is in the thousands and shrinking, while the people content to simply watch the elephants and other wildlife and leave them be is in the millions and surging.

Trophy hunters deduct animals from populations, meaning that there are fewer of them to watch. And the presence of threatening humans makes survivors more skittish. The wildlife-watching industry depends on a certain level of both wildlife cooperation and abundance, and trophy hunting undermines both.

This regulatory uncertainty surrounding trophy imports is yet an additional reason for Botswana to retain its current wildlife protection policy. The Obama Administration banned any imports of lion and elephant trophies, partly because of the controversy over high-profile kills. While the Trump Administration has been inconsistent on import allowances for these threatened and endangered species, the current President described trophy hunting of elephants as “a horror show.”

The U.S. Congress is considering legislation to permanently ban any imports of sport-hunting trophies of threatened or endangered species. That legislation would cover four of the five species that comprise the Africa Big Five. Australia, Austria, China, France, and other nations ban imports of elephant or lion trophies or both.

We know that there are rural Botswanans feeling the effects of wildlife impacts. These are very meaningful concerns, but there is no magic solution to them. A blend of compensation programs for affected communities, selective translocation of elephant families in hard-hit areas, and even the application of contraceptive vaccines focused on female elephants will enable those communities to mitigate conflicts.

But one thing is for sure. If the eco-tourism industry shrinks, they’ll be less money in the pot to manage those conflicts. Brisk tourism generates revenues for businesses and people, but also for the government. If tourism declines, they may have less in the way of resources to address these threats.

There are just three nations that allow the commercial slaughter of whales. We recognize these countries, on this matter at least, as outliers in the global community, feeding the rest of us phony arguments to justify a selfish adherence to practices that no longer conform to obvious moral standards.

There are 50 nations in the world with wild elephants — 37 in Africa and 13 in Asia. Just six countries — South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Tanzania, and Mozambique — allow elephant trophy hunting. If elephant trophy hunting were a valuable and acceptable strategy of managing these animals, it would be more widely permitted.

The six nations that allow elephant trophy hunting, and other governments that enable that enterprise, are increasingly recognized as outliers too. Botswana has distinguished itself by divorcing itself from this group. It would be a colossal mistake to join the rogue operators.

Please email a respectful letter to President Masisi and politely urge him to oppose any significant weakening of the country’s wildlife protection law. He can be reached at op.registry@gov.bw

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