Under President Mokgweetsi Masisi, Botswana has backtracked on its 2014 national wildlife protection policy, and on April 6th the southern African nation will do lasting damage to its reputation by allowing trophy hunters to tromp on its lands and take aim at African elephants and all manner of other wildlife there.
In fact, hunters there can gun down three of the Africa Big Five – shooting an elephant, a lion, a leopard, and a Cape Buffalo. The country’s wildlife agency is allowing foreign trophy hunters, mainly Americans, to slay 276 elephants – which would make it the top elephant hunting nation in the world by a long shot.
The country’s leaders would do well to understand that in this era of social media, and increasing concern for the well-being of animals, that this could be a catastrophic economic decision. This head-snapping turnaround in policy will almost certainly harm the post-COVID-19 comeback of the country’s eco-tourism business (which had been the country’s second biggest business, after mining).
American trophy hunters who trek to Africa want to display the tusks of an elephant or the spotted head of a leopard. To a man, they also want to document images of the hunt – having their guide take a picture of the hunter kneeling over the slain creature or record the kill on video. They often then post the images on social media or share them with friends.
These photographs and videos, once they inevitably get into the public domain, can then ricochet across the world in minutes. Decent people are appalled. The series of grisly and heartbreaking images of the bragging hunters with their knees on the neck of a defenseless creature have already tarnished and exposed the subculture of competitive trophy hunting.
Botswana’s prior president, Ian Khama, had the right idea in banning this commercial wildlife killing. He did so a year before Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer and his guide killed a lion they had lured out of Zimbabwe national park and created an international furor. That grisly slaying of a much-studied male lion, named Cecil, did not initiate concerns about trophy hunting – it just made more vivid the reasons for people around the world to express their disfavor with globe-trotting trophy hunting.
After the Palmer incident, United, Delta, and American Airlines declared they would no longer transport in their cargo holds the trophies of the Africa Big Five. Air Canada, Air France, British Airways, Emirates Airlines, and dozens of others did the same, deciding they’d no longer be the get-away vehicles for the on-going heist of Africa’s greatest living resources.
Trophy hunting of endangered animals is an affront
Americans are the largest pool of the world’s trophy hunters, hopscotching across the globe to kill the rarest of animals under the pretense that the money they spend on the hunt does good for local peoples and even animals. Nonsense. Cockfighters, drug dealers, polluters, and other spenders could make the same arguments that pay-outs and payments make up for their ill deeds, but as a civil society, we draw the line when it comes to animal cruelty, undrinkable water, and killing of endangered animals. This pay-to-slay mentality is archaic as a matter of moral reasoning.
And when it comes to tourism, it’s self-defeating for a nation like Botswana. Like any nation working to attract visitors, the country must earn the attention and affection of its prospective customers. As Americans, Britons, and others think about where they’ll spend their money to see elephants and lions and snap pictures of them, it’s not going to sit well with them if the country also enables this kind of reckless killing of beautiful and threatened wildlife. Wildlife enthusiasts have the option of trekking to countries that don’t allow this behavior, such as Kenya, Gabon, and Rwanda.
The economics of trophy hunting just no longer add up. The network of trophy hunters bent on slaying rare species is in the thousands and shrinking, while the people content to simply watch the elephants and other wildlife and leave them be is in the millions and surging.
Trophy hunters deduct animals from populations, meaning that there are fewer of them to watch. And the presence of threatening humans makes survivors more skittish. The wildlife-watching industry depends on a certain level of both wildlife cooperation and abundance, and trophy hunting undermines both. This kind of ecological crime also doesn’t pay.
The U.S. must stop imports of trophies of endangered animals
The U.S. does not allow trophy hunting of its domestically listed threatened and endangered species, such as Florida panthers, jaguars in Arizona, or grizzly bears in Montana. Why, then, would it allow imports of sport-hunted trophies of foreign-listed species, such as threatened or endangered elephants or lions or leopards?
This is an inconsistency in policy. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and the Congress should bring our endangered species policies into alignment. Even former President Trump described trophy hunting of elephants as “a horror show.”
In any nation with large, free-roaming wildlife, there will be human-wildlife conflicts. These problems must be addressed, and there’s no magic solution to them. A blend of compensation programs for affected communities, selective translocation of elephant families in acutely affected areas, and even the application of contraceptive vaccines focused on female elephants will enable those communities to mitigate conflicts.
But one thing is for sure. If the eco-tourism industry shrinks, they’ll be less money in the pot to manage those conflicts. Brisk tourism generates revenues for businesses and people, but also for the government.
There are just two or three nations (mainly Japan and Norway) that allow the commercial slaughter of whales. We recognize these countries, on this matter at least, as outliers in the global community, feeding the rest of us phony arguments to justify a selfish adherence to practices that no longer conform to obvious moral standards.
There are 50 nations in the world with wild elephants — 37 in Africa and 13 in Asia. Just 6 or so countries, including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Tanzania, and Mozambique, allow elephant trophy hunting. If elephant trophy hunting were a valuable and acceptable strategy of managing these animals, it would be more widely permitted.
Please contact President Mokgweetsi Masisi and politely urge him not to tarnish Botswana’s image with wildlife lovers and tourists throughout the world. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy, is a two-time New York Times best-selling author.