Ending people’s right to hunt is a central goal of animal rights extremist groups such as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Species-by-species, practice-by-practice, these organizations have undermined holistic conservation programs with lawsuits, ballot initiatives and legislation that dismember the successful partnership between hunting and wildlife viewing that has delivered healthy wildlife populations and helped rural communities thrive. In African countries like Botswana, these extremist groups have even succeeded in convincing governments to enact blanket prohibitions on hunting and celebrated it as a model approach to securing the continent’s wildlife. However, new peer-reviewed research discredits the extremists’ claims of success and suggests that if Botswana is to conserve its wildlife, a swift reversal of course is warranted.
Botswana, a former British protectorate, is located in Southern Africa. It is famous for the wildlife rich Okavango Delta, once a popular destination for hunters in search of Cape buffalo and elephant. Tourism is Botswana’s second largest industry, and while the nation is more prosperous than some of its neighbors, it still wrestles with challenges such as a 20 percent unemployment rate that has contributed to more than 30 percent of its population living below the poverty line. Much of Botswana’s wildlife habitat is managed under a regime known as Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM). The CBNRM approach works to help alleviate rural poverty by empowering rural people to collectively use and manage the natural resources in the area where they live. Prior to Botswana’s ban on hunting, CBNRM areas raised revenue by selling permits to professional hunters and photo tourism operators, allowing them and their client’s access to communal lands.
With much of its tourism economy centered on the outdoors, Botswana’s central government adopted one of the most militant and protectionist set of environmental policies in the world in 2013, including a complete ban on hunting and standing shoot-to-kill order for poachers, even if they surrender. These policies follow the forced eviction of rural people from their lands in the name of “conservation.” Botswana’s militant approach and undermining of CBNRM has been widely lauded by animal rights extremist groups as well as former President Barrack Obama, who in a message to Botswana’s President Khama said “[his] leadership in wildlife protection and environmental conservation sets an example for the region and the world.”
Botswana’s policies were announced at a time when animal rights extremist groups were generating considerable hysteria regarding rhino and elephant poaching. While these are very real issues that hunters have played a leadership role in addressing, claims that hunting in Botswana was fueling poaching remain unsupported by any evidence. To the contrary, a peer-reviewed paper recently published in the South African Geographical Journal makes clear that Botswana’s hunting ban is fueling poaching, poverty and hunger along with previously reported human rights abuses.
Like elsewhere in Africa, hunting and photo tourism were essential partners in successful wildlife conservation and sustainable development efforts in Botswana. According to the recently published research, trophy hunting generated twice the revenue for Botswana’s CBNRM areas, as did photo tourism. The paper also cites research showing that more than 49.5 percent of this income stayed within rural communities, with another 25.7 percent staying within Botswana itself. A significantly larger amount than the 27 percent of photo tourism revenue retained by the African nation.
Along with its financial support, trophy hunting historically supplied a valuable source of nutrition to rural communities in CBNRM areas. Contrary to the mendacity of animal rights extremist groups, trophy hunters do not waste animals they kill. The meat of elephants, buffalo, kudu, baboons, lion, hyena, impala and other species is utilized in villages, providing critical protein essential to early childhood development and serving as an important buffer against general malnutrition. In some CBNRM areas, 154 tons of elephant meat alone made its way to local families’ tables.
The money, jobs and food provided by trophy hunting created a powerful economic incentive for Botswana’s rural people to conserve wildlife and the habitat on which it depends. With that incentive removed by the 2013 ban, research notes that incentives for participating in criminal poaching have been on the rise. This is a fact even the elites at the New York Times could not ignore when they reported in 2015 that according to officials with the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, poaching incidents had increased by more than 4 percent. While a seemingly small number, it is one clearly headed in the wrong direction. The research notes that what is occurring is a reversal of the CBNRM area’s previous success in reducing poaching, with some scientists now warning that species like impala are now at risk of extinction in places where they once thrived.
Some of this illegal killing is the result of meat no longer being supplied to rural communities by trophy hunting. With the hunting ban applying to all hunting, Botswana’s local people are faced with the choice of increasing their reliance on livestock (and destroying wildlife habitat in the process), going hungry or hunting the animals that have sustained them for millennia. While Botswana’s courts have recognized the right of some rural people to hunt on their ancestral lands, this ruling has been largely ignored by the central government. In a shocking case of human rights abuse, a group of indigenous hunters were fired on by a helicopter gunship. They survived, but were quickly captured by armed police who reportedly stripped them naked and beat them.
The bottom line? President Obama was wrong. Botswana’s hunting ban is not an example. It is a warning of what will happen if animal rights extremist groups succeed in setting wildlife policy: Rural people who are impoverished and hungry will face beatings or worse if they try to make a living from the beautiful places in which they were born; wildlife will be on the decline; and criminal networks will be on the rise. The research makes the impact of Botswana’s hunting ban plain to see and the praise given to that policy by anti-hunting extremist groups makes it clear that this is the future these groups want, not just in Africa, but around the world. Hunters are on the front lines of this global struggle, not just for our heritage, but to protect wildlife and rural communities across the globe. We have no option but to succeed.