Trophy hunting of elephants in Botswana has no place in conservation

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This is quite likely because there is, in reality, no strong evidence that supports trophy hunting as a superior conservation tool to its alternatives or that doesn’t possess the usual disclaimer “provided it is well governed”. It is surely incumbent on a self-professed intellectual to defend one’s views with at least some evidence.

I examine some of the claims advanced by Weaver below and respond with science.

First, he dismisses critics of the decision to lift the hunting moratorium as non-Motswana. Curiously, most reputable wildlife conservation NGOs working in Botswana do not support elephant trophy hunting. Along with their Namibian counterparts, they are reluctant to say so in public for fear of having their research permits removed.

Those which dare to raise their concerns are publicly vilified. One high-profile tourist operator was threatened with having his concession removed, while the Minister of Tourism reminded the Hospitality and Tourism Association of Botswana to “remember where your bread is buttered” and to support the government’s decision. So much for Masisi being a democrat.

Moreover, the nationality of a critic is hardly grounds on which to dismiss their arguments. One justification commonly presented for hunting (by non-Motswana’s such as Thompson and Martin) is that Botswana has too many elephants that have exceeded the landscape’s “carrying capacity”.

A number of globally acclaimed elephant experts, however, have written a compelling letter to President Masisi that refutes this claim. They make the case for appropriate land use planning as a means of reducing human and elephant conflict rather than hunting (previously proposed by some scientists as an instrument of fear).

Second, the sweeping and speculative claim that the ban has had a devastating effect on rural communities “living daily with human-wildlife conflict and a collapse “in some more than 40% of micro-GDP” is not an argument in favour of reintroducing trophy hunting.

Weaver blames the ban for a collapse in rural income, but this is confusing the object of concern. The way in which the moratorium was imposed was clearly problematic and created resentment among some rural communities who had to suddenly make do without bush meat and revenue they had previously received. This does not mean trophy hunting is the answer; it means the process by which the ban was implemented was flawed.

Appropriate land-use planning (long in advance of the ban) would have been preferable. This would include dedicated migratory corridors of the type currently under construction in Ngamiland, which aid elephant dispersal and increase the probability of amicable human-elephant coexistence.

Moreover, conservation areas that were not amenable to switching to photographic-based tourism could have been converted to self-drive tourism and/or mobile camp concessions. The government precluded this option, insisting on photographic lodges or nothing. Self-drive tourism facilities would have generated revenue and ensured counter-poaching presence.

Hunting is too often promoted as a quick fix in the absence of serious land-use planning alternatives. The real source of human-elephant conflict is not elephant overpopulation, it is conflict over resources (increasingly scarce in the drought). Conflict occurs primarily because dedicated migratory corridors, alongside appropriate conservation agriculture, have not yet been sufficiently replicated and scaled up.

Finally, it is not clear where Weaver derives his figure of “40% of micro GDP” from, or what he even means by that term in this context. If there has been a 40% reduction in revenue to communities that previously benefited from hunting, these figures need to be publicly presented and debated. Reduction in income is not an automatic argument in favour of reintroducing hunting, especially if the opportunity costs (negative impact on photographic tourism and genetic loss of big tuskers) of such a decision have been ignored. Weaver’s implication that all rural communities were negatively affected is irresponsible; it ignores the fact that tourism (in the absence of hunting) has grown substantially since 2013. International tourism receipts as a percentage of total exports increased from 6.4% in 2013 to 10.1% in 2017, which has greatly benefited many local communities.

Third, Weaver lauds Namibia’s conservation model as the inspiration for Masisi’s reversion decision. Interestingly, he quotes that country’s Minister of Environment and Tourism, Pohamba Shifeta. Shifeta claims hunting is at the heart of the success of communal conservancies as it a) provides livelihoods for communities, b) encourages the protection of wildlife populations and c) maintains ecosystem health. I address each of these in turn:


Ross Harvey studied a B.Com in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Cape Town (UCT), where he also completed an M.Phil in Public Policy. At the end of 2018, he submitted his PhD in Economics, also at UCT. He started his wildlife research career at the South African Institute of International Affairs, where he worked as a senior researcher from 2013 to 2019. His initial work oversaw a project that examined every element of the ivory trade, from park to port to end consumer. He has published in one of the world's top journals, Ecological Economics, and a wide array of other outlets. Ross is currently a freelance independent economist who works with The Conservation Action Trust.