Changing Planet

OPINION: Botswana’s Hunting Ban Deserves Better from the New York Times

By Maraya Cornell

A recent article in the New York Times casts Botswana’s hunting ban, enacted just under two years ago, as the disastrous move of a nation acting under the spell of Western animal rights activism.

The author, Norimitsu Onishi, who is the paper’s bureau chief for southern Africa, blames the ban for swelling the number of dangerous animals that terrorize villagers in Sankuyo, where his story is set. And he claims that Sankuyo’s land is “peripheral,” too remote for photo tourism to make up for the income the village lost when trophy hunting ceased.

Both of these conclusions are dubious at best.

Has the Ban Worsened Human-Wildlife Conflict?

Onishi writes that since the ban, “growing numbers” of lions and elephants are terrorizing villagers in Sankuyo, snatching livestock and raiding crops.


Botswana has had a moratorium on lion hunting for most of the past 13 years. So it’s difficult to see how this more general ban, not yet two years old, could have changed the population dynamics of Botswana’s lions.

A lion in the Okavango Delta area of Botswana. Photograph by Jodi Cobb/National Geographic Creative.
A lion in the Okavango Delta area of Botswana. Photograph by Jodi Cobb/National Geographic Creative.

Onishi implies that the reason lions “are increasingly entering villages looking for livestock,” is that they can no longer “feast on the meat of elephants left behind by hunters.”

Costas Christ, Editor at Large for National Geographic Traveler, was formerly a senior director at Conservation International. He lived and worked in Africa for 14 years and was in Botswana last month when Onishi’s article was published.

In an email, Christ said that the situation is exactly the opposite. “Villagers who know Sankuyo very well” explained “that during the years of legal hunting, when Sankuyo was killing elephants and other big game for trophy sport, the leftover carcasses were dumped on the outskirts of the village, attracting predators such as lions and leopards.

“One villager told me you could often smell the dead carcasses when approaching Sankuyo. It was actually the result of hunting itself—not the ban—that brought predators to the village in search of food.”

I haven’t found any evidence that the hunting ban has led to more elephants in Botswana, either, or that it has increased incidents of crop-raiding.

Elephant in Botswana. Photograph by Chris/Johns/National Geographic Creative.
An elephant in Botswana. Photograph by Chris/Johns/National Geographic Creative.

On the contrary, research suggests that years of persecution at the hands of humans has led to a rise in crop-raiding and trampling. And experts say that removing older bulls—the animals targeted by trophy hunters—from elephant society leads to destructive behavior by gangs of “rogue” younger males.

Is Sankuyo’s Land “Marginal”?

There is a sensible argument to be made that allowing licensed hunting on marginal land that isn’t scenic enough for sightseeing can provide an economic incentive for locals to preserve that land as wildlife habitat rather than turn it over to farming or grazing.

Onishi calls the village of Sankuyo “peripheral,” and characterizes its land as an area that would only appeal to trophy hunters.

Is it?

If you look up “Sankuyo, Botswana” on Google Maps, you’ll see that it’s just to the east of the vast Okavango Delta that spreads out into the Kalahari Desert. Famed for its pristine beauty and rich concentrations of wildlife, the Okavango is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a premier destination for well-heeled tourists.

The Sankuyo Tshwaragano Management Trust manages two land concessions, NG 33 and NG 34, both right next to this extraordinary place.

Just to be sure, I asked Colin Bell, coauthor of a guide to Africa’s premier photo safari destinations and one of the original founders of Botswana-based Wilderness Safaris, whether he would consider Sankuyo’s land marginal.

“You have to go much further away into the Kalahari proper to get to marginal,” Bell told me over the phone.

“Photographic companies would want to be there in a heartbeat. If the Sankuyo community came to me and said, ‘Right, would you like to take this area over for the next 20 years?’ I would sign on the dotted line without even going to see what the place is like.”

Elephants roam the plains of Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana. The country is a leading destination for wildlife photography. Photograph by Chris Johns/National Geographic Creative.
Elephants roam the plains of Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana. The country is a leading destination for wildlife photography. Photograph by Chris Johns/National Geographic Creative.

Based on Onishi’s article, you wouldn’t think that any photo tourism takes place on Sankuyo’s land, but in fact there’s a lodge, a tent camp, and a “cultural village.” Photos posted on the Sankuyo Tshwaragano Management Trust’s Facebook page show happy sightseers enjoying the scenery and wildlife spotting.

So why haven’t more tour operators come in to replace the income Sankuyo has lost from hunting?

I haven’t yet been able to get an answer from the Sankuyo Tshwaragano Management Trust, but it may be that land leases are still in the hands of hunting operators who haven’t converted to photo tourism.

Reasonable Reasons for a Hunting Ban

Onishi doesn’t offer any reasons why Botswana’s government might have enacted the hunting ban. He notes only that President Seretse Khama Ian Khama is “a staunch defender of animal rights,” as if that rules out any possibility that the government—rated as the least corrupt in sub-Saharan Africa by Transparency International—had a practical motive.

What Onishi neglects to mention is that the ban is temporary and doesn’t apply to the fenced game ranches that, according to the Botswana Wildlife Producers Association’s Game Ranching Handbook, cover about one percent of the country’s wildlife areas.

Also, the president has a stake in Wilderness Safaris, one of Botswana’s premier photo tourism outfits. (Colin Bell sold his shares in the company in 2005.)

So it seems that something more is at play here than mindless capitulation to the demands of outraged vegans in faraway lands.

When the moratorium went into effect, Botswana’s Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism cited a 2012 aerial survey and an analysis of population trends showing significant declines in a number of hoofed species commonly taken as trophies.

Conservation biologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer Steve Boyes, who has worked extensively in the Okavango, wrote that the reason for Botswana’s ban was “corruption fueling unsustainable hunting and poaching that threatens species survival.”

Hunting’s Millions vs. Photo Tourism’s Billions

Onishi never even mentions how little income trophy hunting generates when compared to photo tourism.

Granted, data are scarce. A 2006 report is the only published estimate of sub-Saharan Africa’s trophy hunting revenue. Based on 2001 communications with the Botswana Wildlife Management Association, the report’s authors calculated that Botswana’s hunting industry generated U.S. $20 million per year and employed about 1,000 people.

By contrast, the World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that photo tourism generates nearly $1.5 billion dollars annually and contributes, directly and indirectly, 69,500 jobs—10 percent of Botswana’s total employment.

Elephants Under Siege

Perhaps the hunting suspension is also intended as a bulwark against international ivory poaching gangs, who will surely find the continent’s biggest elephant population an ever more tempting target as herds disappear elsewhere. (Trophy hunting has been implicated as a smokescreen for poaching.)

But Onishi says elephant numbers are increasing across the continent, citing the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List classification for the species, which hasn’t been updated since 2008—before the current wave of ivory poaching really took off.

Anyone who hasn’t been living in a cave for the last several years knows that Africa’s elephants are in severe decline throughout most of their range. So why doesn’t the Timess southern Africa bureau chief?

Is Trophy Hunting a Successful Conservation Strategy?

Onishi calls trophy hunting the “cornerstone of conservation” in southern Africa, as though the merits of trophy hunting as a conservation strategy are irrefutable. That just isn’t true.

A 2009 analysis by Craig Packer, one of the world’s foremost lion researchers and a one-time supporter of trophy hunting as a conservation measure, showed that harvests (“offtakes”) of lions in Botswana peaked in the early 1990s, then crashed and never recovered.

In his recent book, Lions in the Balance, Packer elaborates: “In every African country that had ever allowed large-scale offtakes of lions, the pattern was the same. A clear peak, followed by precipitous decline, despite the fact that the demand for the lion trophies had continued to grow.”

In other words, trophy hunting’s record of conserving lions is far from spotless. Other studies show that if trophy hunting isn’t vigilantly managed with strictly enforced quotas and age limitations, it can severely damage wildlife populations.

(After many years of research, Packer was expelled from Tanzania for his efforts to expose corruption in the hunting industry. In his place, a new researcher, funded by the hunting industry, is embarking upon a survey of the lion population in Tanzania, which will presumably be used to determine future quotas.)

Costas Christ once supported trophy hunting as a means of conservation, writing that he had worked “on the former and once celebrated (but ultimately failed) CAMPFIRE project in southern Africa with hope that it could prove to be a model of sustainable trophy hunting.”

But, he continued, “I have yet to find more than a one-off random example of trophy hunting viable as either a conservation strategy or revenue stream that can compete on any level with the economic benefits of non-hunting wildlife tourism.”

Conservation in Africa Deserves Better Reporting

The Dallas Safari Club, a powerful hunting lobby that bills itself as a conservation organization and was admitted to the International Union for Conservation of Nature in May, hails Onishi’s story as “another great editorial from the New York Times.”

Except that Onishi’s article isn’t an editorial.

It’s a reported feature in the world news section by—have I mentioned this?—the New York Times’s bureau chief for all of southern Africa, an area larger than Western Europe and encompassing at least five countries.

Anyone trying to grapple with the complex problem of conservation in Africa is opposed by a sea of misinformation. It’s disheartening that the Times, usually a bastion of rigorous journalism, is contributing to the confusion rather than elucidating real solutions.

Maraya Cornell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @MarayaCornell.

  • Peter keat

    A thought provoking commentary such a fraught topic. It reinforces the importance of reading carefully and critically even articles in the NYT which may be subject to severe time pressure.

  • Rod Genricks

    This is clearly written by a person with absolutely limited knowledge of habitat but based solely on issues of hunting.
    Wildlife management cannot be seen thrught the eyes of single facited events but has to take into consideration the local people, sustainability of the enviroment staring with the soil and plant poulation and finally the wildlife which has to be managed sustainably.
    This cannot be seen as a place for the rich and priverlaged to come and play while staying in utmost opulence eating caviar while taking pictures.
    Harvesting of these resources is paramount for its future success. Kenya has already collapsed due to this opulence of privalage and Botswana is following in the same footsteps.
    We no longer have the priverlage of sustainability through “survival of the fittest” as the areas available are being reduced by human growth and as such every part of the natural life cycle has to be managed to sustain it.
    This has to include both hunting and photographic safaris while local populations must be allowed to gather herbs, reeds and building material etc.
    Excess meat from hunting has to be supplied at nominal fees or poaching will just escalate as people starve while ivory, rhino horn, skins and other harvested commodities must be allowed to be sold.
    These areas are dying due to the privalage few who claim the right through emotional ownership of them.

  • Chris Rogers

    Of course there is the fact that the author of this article is pulling his information out of thin air to promote his ideology. No wonder journalism is dead. Typical westerner trying to force other cultures to bend to their ideology “for their own good”. People like the Author are no different that the imperialist whites of the 19th century and the Spanish missionaries that forced their beliefs on every indigenous culture they came across.

    The problem is not the elephants or the hunters. The problem is loss of habitat and the VALUE that the locals attach to the animals. To support the elephant numbers that the bleeding-heart activists want, you would have to eliminate most of the human population. Radical knee-jerk reactionists like the author would probably be fine with that.

    Elephant populations are confined to small areas due to urbanization and human population growth. Elephants are extremely destructive creatures, who do more damage annually than a logging company could ever dream of. I have seen 1 elephant knock down dozens of trees in one hour. Out of control ele populations in confined areas permanently destroy their ecosystem to the detriment of all animals. Behind the scenes, even the most loved National parks in RSA and Zim will sell hunts to cull out-of-control populations. Even organizations like the WWF agree that hunting is an effective way to manage confined game populations.

    And Value. Yes, animals need to have value to survive in Africa. The hunting activity in most of these African countries occurs on private property. With hunting, these animals and their habitat are a protected and highly prized resource. Without hunting, these animals are pests who destroy crops, hurt/kill people, and compete with their cattle for grazing rights. Many property owners joined their lands together to form “conservancies” or “concessions” to preserve and protect large areas for animals to prosper for the purposes of generating revenue from trophy hunting. Without trophy hunting revenues, these land owners would clear the land and return back to agriculture and livestock as their means of income. We are talking about private property, which is never mentioned when these misguided activist try to force their uneducated opinions down the throats of people they will never live with.

    Photo tourism does not generate the revenue that this article would have you believe. Photo tourism is confined to well manicured “parks” where the animals are often fenced in and taken care of. Nothing is more “canned” than taking pictures in a national park. Tourist like these “parks” because they are always established in the most scenic and easily accessed areas of a county. Go to areas like the Omay or Luangwa and I dare you to find 1 photo tourist. The hunters and the property owners manage and protect these animals. When you kill an old Dugga Boy that has past his breeding age, the hunter shows that dignified old warrior great respect. When local tribesmen in the dive into your kill with homemade knifes almost in tears because their families have gone without protein for many months, or they get the ONLY money they will see all year working as trackers, cooks, maids, and skinners, do you think they scoff or resent the white hunter?

    Americans and Brits need to leave the people of Africa alone and express their fake outrage somewhere else.

  • Roger M. Foszcz

    As I read Ms. Cornell’s dissertation, a question kept coming to mind. “I wonder where she lives, on the 27th floor of some inner city apartment building?” Well, I don’t know about the building, but she does reside in Los Angeles, a bastion of concrete and asphalt with an indigenous animal population of rats.

  • Samantha Smith

    Excellent piece. It has been shown that less than 3% of the revenue generated from trophy hunting is directed to local communities. Interesting that some of the people leaving comments on this article accuse Cornell of being a western imperialist when trophy hunting is predominantly the pastime of rich, white men and is the very epitome of colonialism.

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