By Chris Comer, Ph.D., SCIF Director of Conservation
Many readers may have seen in the news reports that the Botswana Democratic Party and President Mokgweetsi Masisi were declared the winners of general elections in Botswana recently. Some may have even clicked through and read the story but most probably do not realize the significance of this event for sustainable use and community livelihoods in southern Africa.
Prior to 2014, Botswana was among the premier destinations in Africa for both photographic and hunting safaris with healthy populations of elephants, lions, Cape buffalo, and many species of plains game. In fact, Botswana currently hosts the largest elephant population in the world with over 130,000 elephants (about 30% of the continental elephant population) according to a 2016 IUCN report. They also had a well-developed system of community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) that allowed local communities and rural Batswana to benefit from their abundant wildlife resources. However, in 2013 then-president Ian Khama placed a moratorium on all hunting on state land, including by Batswana. Hunting on private game ranches continued because land tenure is privately owned. Like any such policy, the reasons for and politics surrounding the ban were complex; however, the impacts of the ban on Botswana’s wildlife, habitats, and people are quite clear (Effects of the Safari Hunting Tourism Ban on Rural Livelihoods and Wildlife Conservation in Northern Botswana, Joseph E. Mbaiwa). While the phototourism industry in the country has grown in key photographic areas (e.g., the Okavango Delta Ramsar Site), these benefits have not reached many rural communities, who live in marginal areas where photographic tourism is either very low, or not commercially viable. Elevated conflicts with wildlife—especially elephants, lions, and leopards—have profoundly affected those people. Damage to crops and property is widespread and recent years have seen increases in livestock and even human loss of life. The recently completed documentary Voices from the Frontline details many of these issues. Not surprisingly, with no income available from wildlife and few legal means to prevent damage to their livelihoods, illegal and retaliatory killing of wildlife is on the rise. SCIF conservation staff were fortunate enough to attend a meeting of community leaders in Gaborone in August and hear these concerns first-hand.
President Masisi became president in April 2018 and in May 2019 announced the intention of his government to lift the moratorium on hunting on state land for elephant and buffalo in the country. Predictably, this elicited condemnation from animal rights groups that urged the president to prioritize Western values over the needs of his country and his people. These included calls for boycotts of the lucrative phototourism industry in Botswana, potentially putting further pressure on livelihoods in rural areas. In addition to lifting the hunting ban, efforts are underway to reestablish the CBNRM system and allow rural communities to benefit from their natural resources. So far, the president has resisted pressure to maintain the hunting ban but his presidency was not certain until the results of the October general election. With the recently announced results, His Excellency President Masisi will be in office for at least five years, giving him the mandate to continue working to benefit Botswana and rural communities through sustainable use of their wildlife. Safari Club International and SCI Foundation have met with President Masisi and the Ministry of Environment, Wildlife, and Tourism to express our support for Botswana in these efforts. We will welcome a delegation from Botswana that includes Ministry representatives, the Botswana Wildlife Management Association, and CBRNM organizations to our upcoming African Wildlife Consultative Forum in November. Of course, the hunter-conservationists of SCI benefit from increased international hunting opportunities that come with the lifting of the hunting moratorium. More importantly, the people of Botswana will have a means to manage their wildlife and fully benefit from their abundant natural resources. Finally, conservation will benefit from sustainable use in Botswana like it does in the other countries of southern and eastern Africa.