Changing Planet

A Tale of Two Countries: Zimbabwe and Botswana, Neighbors with Opposing Attitudes toward Wildlife

By Masha Kalinina, International Trade Policy Specialist, Humane Society International

On a recent tour into Zimbabwe’s Matobo National Park – where white and black rhinos are being reintroduced – our group noticed that the horn of a white rhino we spotted was removed. I asked our guide why. “To deter poachers,” he replied. Knowing that even the small stump that remains is worth thousands of dollars, I prodded further, “What do you do with the horn?” He responded “It’s stored in a vault in Harare.” “But why?” I inquired, given his previous explanation that the use of horn powder in Asian medicine is a scam. “To sell it for ornaments, for carvings” he told us, fully confident this was the right thing to do with the rhino’s horn. Since ornamental trade is one of the drivers of the demand for rhino horn and the rhino poaching war we face today, it was disappointing to hear this.

I traveled to Zimbabwe to gain a better understanding of the efforts to conserve wildlife in Southern Africa. One of my top goals was to learn more about the co-existence of people and wildlife –  where is it working and why? This was a constant debate at the recently concluded meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulates trade in wild animal and plant products. I was at this meeting in South Africa representing Humane Society International.

At CITES, hunters argued that trophy hunting profits help local communities coexist with wildlife. Yet conservationists know that local residents receive as little as three percent of the money paid by trophy hunters. Corruption prevents these funds from benefiting conservation and the money simply greenwashes an unsustainable practice. If trophy hunters and their advocates are heard loud and clear, which African voices are not being heard?

And so following CITES, I booked a tour, setting off on an 11-day driving trip from Johannesburg to Zimbabwe’s Matobo National Park and Victoria Falls, to Botswana’s Chobe National Park, the Okavango Delta, and the Khama Rhino Sanctuary.

White rhino in Matobo National Park, Zimbabwe.
Southern white rhino in Matobo National Park, Zimbabwe. Credit: Masha Kalinina.

The first country on the trip, Zimbabwe, was one of four (including Namibia, South Africa and Botswana) to legally export ivory to China and Japan in 2008, all with permission from CITES. It is widely recognized that this sale, with other contributing factors, spurred the current African elephant poaching crisis – in September 2016, the Great Elephant Census, the first pan-African aerial survey of savanna elephants in decades, revealed a disturbing 30 percent decline of the species between 2007 and 2014. This year at CITES, Zimbabwe and Namibia yet again sought to legalize trade in their ivory stockpiles. Fortunately this effort failed. Run by a dictator and known for its corruption, Zimbabwe’s profit-driven attitude toward wildlife is hardly surprising.

In stark contrast to its neighbor to the east, the next country in my visit, Botswana, is a beacon of hope for wildlife in the region.

Elephant herd in Chobe National Park, Botswana.
Elephant herd in Chobe National Park, Botswana. Credit Masha Kalinina.

As we loaded our mokoro canoes for our camping trip on Botswana’s Okavango Delta, I met Waco, one of our expert “polers” who would guide us down the narrow streams of the lush delta marshland. Waco was also an expert tracker and one of two guides helping us explore the delta on foot. No guns or other weapons were permitted even though our hike took us through an area where all of Africa’s “Big Five” (elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos and buffalo) reside.

Waco, in the Okavango Delta. Credit: Masha Kalinina,
Above and below: Waco in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Credit: Masha Kalinina.

Waco, Okavango Delta. Credit: Masha Kalinin

Waco knew every animal by sound, used their calls to determine their distance from us, and recognized the tracks of every single creature. There was both a primal intuition and a deep intelligence in him. On our hike, we observed an elephant bull eating acacia tree fruit and Waco commented, “Elephants are very important to the ecosystem. They help create the paths we and other animals use to cross the forest. They knock down dead trees and their dung carries seeds that help plant new ones.”

Waco, who was born on an island a short walk from our camp, has lived through a transformational time in Botswana’s conservation history. In January 2014, Botswana prohibited all forms of wildlife hunting, including subsistence and trophy hunting. In fact, Waco himself was formerly a subsistence hunter. Since 2014, this land has been successfully converted from hunting to photographic concessions, with government assistance.

Waco showing tracks in the Okavango Delta.
Waco showing snake tracks in the Okavango Delta. Credit Masha Kalinina.

This transition did not come easily for Waco and the local residents, who were previously able to provide for themselves in part through hunting or by working for hunting operators. Waco reflected on the changes while we sat around our campfire. “Our communities own this land and now the tour operators pay us to bring visitors here.” The operators must also employ locals for these camping experiences, as polers, cooks, guides and cleaning staff. “For hunting, the season is short…six months…because hunting was not allowed when animals are breeding,” Waco added, “but with tourists, we can work all year.”

A nearby concession, now called the Selinda Reserve, converted from hunting to photographic tourism thus providing a net increase in revenue benefit to the nation of 2,500 percent. This includes a massive increase in employment. Villagers are also compensated for damage done by elephants to their farms and those who lose cattle to predators can receive replacement animals.

Botswana also set an incredible example this year at CITES. Botswana’s Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, Tshekedi Khama, declared that – unlike South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, which seek to profit from ivory trade – Botswana would voluntarily prohibit commercial trade in ivory. I was in the room to witness this momentous announcement, which was met with thundering applause.

Female poler, Okavango Delta, Botswana.
One of the local “polers”, Okavango Delta. Credit: Masha Kalinina.

Back at our campfire on the Okavango Delta, I found myself surrounded by the elephants Minister Khama, and Waco, now work to keep alive. Our voices echoed into the night until Waco and a fellow camp operator, Phil, hushed our group pointing in the direction of the mokoro canoes on the water. An elephant shadow appeared in the moonlight only 20 feet away from us, followed by her calf. These “grey ghosts” walked gracefully and quietly. Then, slightly spooked by the canoes, the two rushed away from our camp toward other elephants we could hear splashing nearby in the water. I lay in bed that night listening to the symphony of the savanna, reflecting on the fact that Waco and Botswana are the voices and hope for the future of Africa where, in some parts, people and wildlife are learning to live in peace.

Masha and an elephant after a swim, Chobe National Park, Zimbabwe. Credit: Amanda Mayhew

Masha Kalinina is an International Trade Policy Specialist with Humane Society International (HSI). Specializing in wildlife trade, Ms. Kalinina advocates for strong wildlife protections for a variety of animals under the environment chapters of free trade agreements, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and the International Polar Bear Forum, among others. Ms. Kalinina also leads the HSI campaign to end the inhumane and unsustainable practice of trophy hunting. Prior to HSI, she worked for Booz Allen Hamilton providing consulting services for U.S. government clients. Ms. Kalinina earned her Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) from The George Washington University and her law degree from the William and Mary School of Law.

Humane Society International and its partner organizations together constitute one of the world’s largest animal protection organizations. For 25 years, HSI has been working for the protection of all animals through the use of science, advocacy, education and hands on programs. Celebrating animals and confronting cruelty worldwide – on the Web at

  • Steve Gluck

    Sustainable-use offers the only real hope for Africa’s wildlife. Look at what happened in Kenya after they banned hunting. I expect the same will happen in Botswana … just give it time. Protectionism is just another outdated, anachronistic example of Western Eco-imperialism. Study the Game-Ranches of South Africa or the Communal Conservancies of Namibia if you want to understand how Sustainable-Use really works … (or ask me) … 🙂 …

    … and see The White Rhino from my good friends at Osprey Films here:

    Good luck …

  • Alan Snooker

    Kenya (post-trophy hunting) is an example of poor land management, poaching and wanton over-grazing. A 2009 report (British Journal of Zoology, Otuma et al. – link below) states the surge in domestic livestock in Kenya is largely accountable for the drop in wildlife populations; citing the three main causes as illegal poaching, large herds and ranges of domestic livestock, plus changing land use patterns on ranches. Kenya has a culture where wealth and social status is represented by cattle stocks, which dominate the grazing available to the detriment of wildlife. The lack of trophy hunting in Kenya is not cited as a driver for wildlife detriment in Kenya. Botswana is doing things differently and for the better. ‘Sustainable’ wildlife utilisation is a myth perpetuated by those that profit from it and those that enjoy that wildlife utilisation –

  • Brosolo Francesco

    Recently a former trophy hunting guide in Zimbabwe admitted that they lost any leopard and lion outside of the national parks where they could’t technically be hunted. Still lion and leopard trophy hunting quotas are sold and the lions and leopards are baited away from the parks (and this is illegal, even for Zimbabwe) to allow the kills. Basically what happened to Cecil the lion happens all the time. This is nothing but poaching in disguise.

    Trophy hunters claim that trophy hunting can be done in sustainable way but the reality is that trophy hunting decimated the animals and now the only alternative to them is acting through poaching. As you can see, there is no distinction in the end between trophy hunting and poaching in term of devastating wildlife.

    Meanwhile Botswana have banned all form of hunting and their wildlife have prospered with great beneficial of their economy too. But that’s also because Botswana have done another great job: preventing the overpopulation not of animals but of humans. The best thing we can do to ensure our wildlife a future is to prevent humans to grow too much and take away their lands. This is the reason we seriously need birth control globally and without exception. Something that was already planned for Africa (where it could also be very important to prevent deseases) but the roman vatican opposed it.

  • Andrew van Heerden

    The mind boggles that someone who does a whistle stop 11 day tour of two countries can purport to know enough to write such an article. Clearly the author has already made up her mind, and in her article speaks to no experts, only guides. We would do better to take stock market advice from our hairdresser.

    Why not visit some Bubye Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe – it has the largest lion and black rhino population in Zimbabwe, but (wait for it) is funded by hunting. Why not visit Gonarezhou, Hwange, or Mana pools? Why not make note of the fact that Zimbabwe is suffering a financial crisis beyond comprehension, and despite that has done remarkably well.

    If the Author is interested in scientific authority then she should turn the recent paper from the IUCN informing decisions on trophy hunting.

  • Marla Knight-Dutille

    I am so pleased to read this article. I feel like I’ve been banging the drum in the wilderness for years, trying to convince everyone that conservation tourism will bring more money to Africa than hunting will. This article warms my heart and gives me hope. I’m going on a trip to Botswana in 2018 and I am going to that country because I want to spend tourism dollars there in support of their conservation philosophy.

  • Cheryl

    The Humane Society is well known for opposing Zimbabwe’s wildlife management policies, so any report from Masha Kalinina is bound to be biased against the country. Of course, on a blog anyone can highlight whatever negatives they want, but I hope thinking people will see beyond this.
    Basing much of her opinion of a country on a couple of words from one guide is irresponsible. Did she ask Zimbabwe’s Parks and Wildlife Management Authority to see their ivory cache in Harare? I have been there; I have seen the rhino horns and rows upon rows of elephant tusks in a huge storeroom with computerised records. These have not been crafted into tourist trinkets.
    In the Matobo National Park private individuals and international organisations are working tirelessly to keep the reintroduced white and black rhinos from being eliminated by poaching. The work being done behind the scenes to aid wildlife (and humanity) by other individuals and organisations throughout the country is commendable, but none of this is mentioned.
    The Zimbabwean guides I have met have all been well-qualified and highly professional, including a guide called Time, who worked in the Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve. He was as much an expert of the bush, The Big Five, the Big Six and the stars above as Ms Kalinina’s Waco was, and most likely his ancestors were also subsistence hunters. It was after a local Zimbabwean Wildlife Society visited Time’s tiny rural primary school in the Matusadona area that he understood the importance of wildlife and later took up guiding as a career.
    As for the Great Elephant Census, while there was a “disturbing 30 percent decline of the species between 2007 and 2014” in the total area surveyed, across Zimbabwe as a whole the total number of elephants remained roughly constant. In fact in some places such as in Gonarezhou National Park, there are far too many of them.
    Botswana is indeed a paragon of virtue when it comes to sustainable tourism but it is also important to get all the facts before discrediting other countries in this manner.

  • Bhasera Ndoro

    I disagree with you Masha. Although, Zim govt approach differs from our neighbour Botswana, the necessity of Zimbabwe to sell ivory is not driven by corruption or profit. Zim’s goals are two fold. Firstly, to fund conservation efforts in game reserves. Secondly, to protect communities whose livelihood is directly affected by animals surrounding game parks.
    As a Zimbabwean citizen, it is condescending to hear some outsider thinking that they have the right answers to our own animal problems. Even though you say Zimbabwe is run by a dictator there is no doubt that our democratically elected President has the best interests of our beautiful nation. Thank you.

  • Richard Natoli-Rombach

    Studies have shown trophy hunting and wildlife hunting has done little if nothing to impact conservation of wildlife and very little helps to support economies. Success stories have occurred in what were considered unlikely places like Rwanda that used to be the poorest and most heavily populated country in continental Africa. I have firsthand knowledge of the success. I was a research assistant at Karisoke Research Center in 1974 assisting in the study of mountain gorillas. Tourism, especially ecotourism, has provided a wealth of jobs and bolstered the economy to such a degree that Rwanda is now one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. It took 40 years of concerted efforts by conservation groups to not only plan the preservation of mountain gorillas but include the local populations, provide jobs, education and health care. As a result not only has the economy greatly improved but the mountain gorilla population has increased by about 300 to almost 800 today.

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