It is simply shocking that Botswana’s new President Mokgweetsi Masisi would give stools made of elephant’s feet as gifts to his counterparts from Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia. This outrageous affront to conservation in Southern Africa took place at a conference Masisi hosted on the banks of the Chobe River three weeks ago, meant to discuss how to manage elephant populations.. It resurrected horrendous images of human hands floating in glass jars during King Leopold’s reign of terror in the Congo, or Gorilla hands being used as ashtrays by East African dictators.
Can regional politicians driven by greed and political power really reduce Africa’s most highly intelligent and sentinel being to nothing more than a foot stool to be laughed at? It seems we have lost our moral compass. What the Elephant Summit in Kasane was really all about was Masisi convincing the leaders of neighbouring countries to back his decision to lift a ban on elephant hunting and to push for the legalisation of the ivory trade. The motivation being that Botswana has an impending election in October that is a tight race between Masisi’s ruling party and the opposition. The objective is for Masisi to win over rural votes to tilt the electoral balance in his favour by lifting the five year ban on elephant hunting.
The depravity of such political expediency is nauseating. The message to the region is clear – the gentle giants of the African wild will no longer be afforded safe haven in Botswana and potentially its neighbouring countries.
Just as President Donald Trump wasted no time in unravelling the legacy and progressive policies put in place by his predecessor Barack Obama, so is Masisi attempting to unravel former President Ian Khama’s legacy and monumental strides made in wildlife conservation. Khama’s brother Tshekedi, who was his Minister of Environment was dumped from the cabinet by Masisi in December, and the five year total ban on elephant hunting overturned. The shoot-to-kill approach towards poachers has also been reversed, and Botswana – which was long considered the last refuge for elephants – is now going to hunt them.
It seems our new Minister of Environment Barbara Creecy has a monumental challenge on her hands – to convince her counterparts in Southern Africa that hunting elephants and legalising the trade in ivory is the worst idea regional politicians could have come up with. Scientists say it will significantly threaten the survival of one of the most iconic species in Africa, and serve as a rallying cry internationally to boycott tourism in Botswana and the region if hunting is allowed.
Botswana, home to one third of Africa’s elephant population, will now be seen as another African state that puts profits ahead of conservation. Legalising the trade in ivory and lifting the hunting ban will bring about a surge in demand for ivory in Asia. The last time that the ivory trade was legalised in 2008 there was a surge in demand for ivory in Asia which expanded the operations of organised criminal networks trafficking in ivory globally, and saw an escalation of poaching throughout Africa.
Once government stockpiles of ivory are sold and politicians have taken their cut of the profits, the demand for ivory will boost poaching, and elephant populations are predicted to decline faster than ever before. Elephants Without Borders had already been reporting prior to the debate around the hunting ban hotting up last year, that there had been a poaching frenzy in the north of the country.
The greater evil is that the justification politicians give for lifting the hunting ban is based on myths and not the research of scientists who have found that elephant populations in Botswana are actually stable and not increasing. The problem is not the number of elephants, but the distribution and concentration of herds, which can be influenced through conservation-friendly strategies without resorting to killing thousands of innocent elephants.
There is also no research based evidence that conflict between humans and elephants has been increasing in Botswana. Scientists see no ecological reason to change the number of elephants in Botswana’s Chobe reserve, and research suggests that elephant populations actually regenerate vegetation as elephants can deposit seeds 90kms from where they feed. In cases where elephants have come in contact with human settlement and trampled fields or eaten crops, the suggestion has been made that villagers keep bees as a deterrent, as elephants are afraid of bees and will stay away from them.
Time is ticking before the next CITES meeting where South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe were planning to push for the right to trade in elephant hides, ivory and hunting trophies, as well as trade in ivory from government stockpiles. This will be the beginning of the end for elephants in Southern Africa, and it will our collective shame for not having done anything to stop the demise of this majestic species that relies on our respect and goodwill.
Shannon Ebrahim is the foreign editor for the Independent Media Group.