The President of Botswana, Lieutenant General Ian Khama, announced recently at a public meeting in Maun, the gateway to the Okavango Delta, that no further hunting licenses would be issued from 2013, and that all hunting in Botswana would be impossible by 2014. This new ban extends to all ‘citizen hunting’ and covers all species, including elephant and lion that can only be shot when designated as “problem animals”. President Khama stated that ecotourism has become increasingly important for Botswana and contributes more than 12% of their overall GDP, noting that wildlife control measure through issuance of hunting licenses had reached its limit. Furthermore, he said the issuance of hunting licenses had fueled poaching and the resultant “catastrophic” declines in wildlife, while preventing sustained growth in the tourism industry. The global tourism industry must support this move by sending thousands more tourists to see Botswana’s natural heritage. Next year, the Okavango Delta will be nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site and what better way to celebrate than this halt of the issuance of hunting licenses…
In 2011, Dr Mike Chase (www.elephantswithoutborders.org) released results from aerial surveys over the Okavango Delta that demonstrated that the populations of some wildlife species had been decimated by hunting, poaching and veldt fires over the last decade. These research findings found that 11 species have declined by 61 percent since a 1996 survey in the Ngamiland district.
Ostrich numbers declined by 95 percent, while 90 percent of wildebeest were also wiped out, along with 84 percent of antelope tsessebe, 81 percent of warthogs and kudus, and nearly two-thirds of giraffes.
Dr Chase said that: “The numbers of wildebeest have fallen below the minimum of 500 breeding pairs to be sustainable. They are on the verge of local extinction”. On the ground, the Department fo Wildlife & National Parks have seen lion populations dwindle in protected areas like the Khutse Game Reserve, Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve and the Kgalagadi Trans-Frontier Park, where human-wildlife conflict has been escalating for over a decade. Lion hunting was suspended in 2007. These visionary policy choices are an example to other African countries that depend on revenue from ecotourism, but have been strongly opposed by several conservation groups in Botswana that argue hunting quotas issued to local communities near wildlife management areas are a heritage right and empower these villages. Another argument against the ban is that some areas are simply unsuitable for photographic safaris and hunting operations are the only economically viable option. There is no doubt that wildlife hunting has a role to play in local economies and in the funding of private conservation efforts. This is a significant move by the Botswana government and we must watch developments over the next few years very carefully. Will the elephants destroy the forests and the lions eat the last wildebeest? Will illegal poaching become more of a problem? Will Botswana blossom with a booming ecotourism industry? Will rural communities disagree with not being able to hunt wildlife they have depended upon for generations? There are still going to be hungry people in Africa that need bushmeat for protein and income from rhino horns to survive. Banning all hunting in Botswana is not going to solve these fundamental problems, and scenes like these will continue to happen…
Throughout Africa there is growing discontent with interventions by and management prescriptions from foreign aid workers and NGOs, asking for better regulation of trophy hunting and the illegal trade in bushmeat. Trophy hunting is seen around the world as privilege and a cultural right, resulting in a powerful, well-funded lobby supported and funded by wealthy and influential business and political leaders from around the world. This move by Botswana will no doubt garner a strong reaction from hunters. Trophy hunters are normal people with familial, cultural and socio-economic reasons for hunting. Professional hunters and their clients will simply go elsewhere and, in this day-and-age, that means focussing on the last-remaining unprotected wilderness areas in Africa: southern Tanzania, northern Mozambique, and northern Zambia. North and West Africa have no wildlife to speak of anymore, central Africa is simply not an option, and South Africa has been saturated with game farms to supply local demand for hunting. Again the hunters will be the pioneers that establish roads, start working with local villages, and build the first camps. They will then operate for 10-25 years before the photographic safari operators begin to establish themselves. Hunters have been having the safari experiences we now market in wilderness trails for over 200 years throughout Africa. Sport hunting and then trophy hunting have no doubt played a significant role in the decimation of African wildlife populations. Wars, famine, fire and land conversion have killed more wildlife and represent more of an extinction threat than modern-day trophy hunting. It is just that times are changing and the world is becoming exponentially smaller every year. Most of the hunting areas in Botswana could be classified as wilderness and landowners make no effort to increase wildlife populations. In South Africa, however, the vast majority of hunting happens on private “game farms” that add value to wildlife, trade in the best stock, and manage the farms for maximum productivity. Game farms now protect millions of hectares of land in South Africa and hunting drives these rural economies. This will never be possible in Botswana and the choice for government was an easy both economically and politically. They have decided to commit to the photographic safari industry for now and good luck to them…
An African Perspective
African leaders like Khama are standing up and taking bold moves to protect national interests. The Ugandan President Museveni said: “Please. Don’t disturb their holiday”, when talking about the UN mission to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Africa is rising to the responsibility of protecting the continent’s natural resources and unique heritage. African Union troops are restoring government in Somalia. Africa is more free, more prosperous, more peaceful, and more educated than ever before. There have also never been more than 1 billion people living on the continent at any one time. The 21st century could be Africa’s century as abundant resources become globally important and African leaders learn how protect their interests when faced by world powers like China and the United States.
There is no doubt that Africa is going to develop rapidly over the next few decades. No other continent or nation has managed to develop without chronic loss of biodiversity and functioning ecosystems. The United States has no bison or passenger pigeons. China has no clean air and many species on the brink of extinction. Wolves disappeared from England in the 1500s. There is very little wildlife left in South Africa outside of protected areas. Let’s hope that, with global support, Africa will be able to emerge in 50 years time as a prosperous, stable and cooperative union of nations with the world’s wildest, most pristine wilderness areas on earth.
Most African tribes have “royal hunting grounds” and recognize the importance of protecting wildlife populations from people capable of exterminating them. Sub-Saharan Africa’s “Great Work” is our vast wildernesses, like the Serengeti, Congo and Okavango, that have persisted since the dawn of time as symbols of the “wild”. For thousands of years, the tsetse fly and mosquito helped keep people and their cattle from settling in these vast wild landscapes, where they had to chose a more nomadic lifestyle moving with livestock and establishing temporary homesteads and villages. African cultures have evolved in close contact with the wilderness and learnt how to co-exist with nature. For the last 50 years, however, aerial spraying, poisons, mosquito nets and medicine have opened up Africa and nothing but war and legislative protection stops people from moving in and civilizing untouched, remote wilderness areas.
The new frontier in Africa is the hard line between the human landscape (cultivated/built-up/no wildlife) and the wilderness. This land conversion has only ever gone one, irreversible direction and over the last 25 years has accelerated to the point that Africa reported deforestation rates twice that of the rest of the world.
Human-wildlife conflict is the latest buzz word in conservation NGOs that work in Africa and conferences are being convened to find ways of “mitigating” this escalating conflict, prescribing the development of alternative livelihoods for communities dependent on bushmeat for protein and disposable income. The fight to save Africa’s wild places is like any guerrilla war, and the other side has more money, more power, and know how to manipulate the system. The front lines of this conflict are the villages and communities pushing to grow and expand into protected areas and wilderness to supply the demands of local and international markets. Africans are realizing that what makes Africa special is the “African bush”, our great protected areas and wildernesses captivate the imagination. I have worked as a safari guide for many years and have always enjoyed seeing well-trained guides from the local community talking about “their birds and animals”. Us Africans are born proud of our wildlife and are starting to see that the “wild” is finite and that there is not much left. Africa needs to be proud and follow in the footsteps of Botswana.
A Personal Perspective
In Botswana, the hunting industry has unfortunately been a law unto itself and demonstrated an inability to self-regulate with several operators becoming notorious for getting away with unethical and illegal behavior in remote wilderness areas. I started work as a camp manager in the Okavango Delta over 10 years ago and remember some African wild dogs as they ran through the bush when we suddenly came upon a crane truck with blood dripping out of the tailgate and an elephant’s foot protruding from the top. They were on their way to the village and we had heard the volley of shots the day before. The hunters to the east of us, used to hang carcasses in the trees to delineate their boundary with new photographic safari camps sharing their concessions. There have just been too many stories like this over the years. There is no doubt that professional hunters were the original pioneers in the Okavango Delta, entering after the first explorers in the late 1890s and establishing themselves in the first hunting camps on remote islands. The 20th century in northern Botswana was their century and Botswana became known as a premier hunting destination for the adventurous elite. Kalahari lions and leopards, as well as the “big tusker” elephants, became famous in hunting circles, attracting stars, politicians, leaders, and the wealthy to this landlocked country. The 21st century has been all about the rise of photographic safaris with this increasingly lucrative industry continues to boom. Private companies like Wilderness Safaris: www.wilderness-safaris.com and Great Plains Safaris: www.greatplainsconservation.com made it their mission to take over one hunting concession after another in a crusade to push hunting out of northern Botswana.
I must say that I am pro-photographic safaris and have grown to detest sport hunting with a passion. It is an anachronistic adrenalin rush that has no place in the stressed wilderness areas of Africa. Illegal poaching and the bushmeat trade are something completely different and cannot be addressed by banning the issuance of hunting licenses. I am not a vegetarian. I have hunted. I did my Masters dissertation on hunting quotas. When I first arrived in the Okavango Delta in 2001, I had just finished my Masters and, if asked, would have told you that hunting makes a valuable contribution to the local economy and, if done properly, could benefit wildlife populations. Within 6 months of learning and discovery in a remote wilderness area in the Okavango Delta, running a small bush camp and doing my PhD fieldwork on the ecology of Meyer’s parrot, I had changed my mind forever. Unveiled for what they are, I realized that all the game parks, game farms, nature reserves, national parks and sanctuaries I had visited in South Africa were all human constructs that would not exist without fences, waterholes, veterinarians, fire management, culling, hunting, and intensive management. This wilderness in the Okavango Delta was “still alive” and didn’t need us. This made me think and spend evenings staring out in wonder at this living eden. Watch the Film Trailer for Okavango: www.okavangofilm.com We cannot consider hunting in a place like this that self-regulates and maintains a perfect natural balance…
In northern Botswana, in the Okavango, Kwando, Chobe and Linyanti, most lodges and camps charge $600-1,500 per person per night and are busy most of the time, thus out-earning hunting concessions and giving back far more to local communities. Some photographic operators have gone so far as to provide nearby villages with beef to supplement the meat that would have come from trophy hunting and local subsistence hunting. Now, this is not possible everywhere in Botswana and many wilderness areas are too sparsely populated by wildlife to be viable as photographic safari destinations. In addition, the game farms near Ghanzi in the south-west of Botswana have been actively farming wildlife for hunting like South Africa. An absolute ban is possible in Botswana because the photographic safari industry is so powerful now, but many stakeholders are going to be left with investments they cannot repay as photographic safari operators. Northern Botswana faces very different issues to the south of the country, and a ban on hunting may be ill-advised down south.
The basic fact of the matter is that an animal in the bush has no monetary value. A hunting license instantly gives that same animal a monetary value. In Botswana, the photographic safari industry has been able to add more monetary value for the last 10-15 years. I hope this trend continues and we decide one day to put our guns down and pay the same money to take awesome photographs. Until then we need to be practical and use hunting as a conservation tool where applicable.