Emmanuel Koro in Kasane, Botswana

The Botswana Minister of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism, Honourable Onkokame Mokaila said if Africans do not use their wildlife they would remain beggars forever.

Speaking during the Botswana Government convened Kasane Elephant Summit that is aimed at working towards a common southern African vision for the management of elephants, Minister Mokaila said the biggest threat to successful wildlife conservation and to economic wellbeing in Africa is the dictation of outsiders (western countries and animal rights groups) to Africa on how it should manage and use its wildlife as if we do not know how to do it ourselves. He warned animal rights groups that they are not welcome in Botswana.

“As sovereign African states we have now decided that we are no longer going to be dictated to by western countries and animal rights groups on how to manage and use our wildlife,” said Minister Mokaila.

“We have abundant natural resources in Africa, including wildlife and it is us sovereign African states who should decide how to manage and use them.” In fact, Southern African governments made that decision about two months ago in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe at the Kavango Zambezi (KAZA) Transfrontier Conservation Area Meeting for Environment Ministers.

Minister Mokaila is one of Botswana’s longest serving ministers who believes that the reason why President Mogkweetsi Masisi re-appointed him as Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism Minister was to ensure that natural resources (including wildlife such as elephants) benefit the people who share the same land with them.

“The reason President Masisi re-appointed me as Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism Minister is because he believes that Government resources alone cannot deal with challenges before us. President Masisi believes that communities must reap rewards for good conservation.”

Sadly, Minister Mokaila said Botswana communities’ conservation rewards were suddenly stopped in 2013 when former President Ian Khama imposed a ban on elephant hunting, without consulting his people.

Fortunately, President Masisi stepped in without delay to restore the hopes of the Botswana rural communities such as those from the wildlife-rich Chobe District that they can once again benefit from elephant hunting. It generates most of the hunting revenue. This followed President Masisi’s public statements on Botswana Television and other media platforms locally, regionally and internationally, signaling his intention to begin elephant hunting.

“I support President Masisi on the notion that elephant hunting must come back as we have heard him say that on the local television station and in different media,” said a resident of Parakarungu village, Chobe District, Mr David Mbanga.

Mr Mbanga said former President Ian Khama’s imposed ban on elephant hunting came as a disappointment because he never consulted the people.

“Even his late father Seretse Khama would have been very disappointed to see that his son is taking away wildlife benefits from the people. President Seretse Khama used to give us buffaloes for meat annually. Now his son has sadly failed to follow in his father’s footsteps.”

According to residents, the Ian Khama ban on elephant hunting was like telling a supermarket to sell only sweets without major commodities that bring money. When that happens, a businessman has to close shop immediately because the business would not be viable. This is how former president Khama collapsed Botswana’s hunting industry with hundreds of jobs being lost, in what seemed to be a moment of madness.

Mr Mbanga, a farmer, said former President Khama also devalued the elephants when he banned elephant hunting. Without elephant hunting benefits, Chobe District villagers, like all else in Botswana did not see the need to conserve elephants because they brought costs without benefits.

“The costs include killing our loved ones,” said Mr Mbanga. “We have just buried one of them today here in Kasane. Elephants have also destroyed our property. In fact, we can no longer grow crops because elephants are always destroying them. Therefore, I support President Masisi’s intention to lift the ban on elephant hunting because hunting can help us thin-out the large elephant herds and also minimise human wildlife conflict as people begin to receive benefits from elephants.”

“We’re planning to ensure that when hunting begins, we should come up with a negotiated increase of Chobe communities’ share from hunting revenue because everything has gone up since the ban on elephant hunting in 2013,” said a farmer from Kachikau Village, Mr Richard Tshekonyane.

“Our development wish-list should include the need to build a butchery and bakery in each village as well as engage in any other projects that benefit our people.”

One of Chobe District’s most tangible investments made using elephant hunting revenue was the construction of the upmarket Chobe Enclave Conservation Trust community lodge that is run jointly with private sector partners. The lodge benefits local communities through employment and training their children in different professional disciplines.

This investment stands out as Chobe District’s shining example on how elephant revenue can benefit both elephant conservation and socioeconomic development.

The benefits from elephant hunting help people see the need to conserve elephants. They begin to appreciate what is now being increasingly referred to as the elephant economy where elephants are valued and used to benefit conservation and development.

For example, a Botswana Deputy Chief from Kavimba in Kachikau Village, the late Luckson Masule is remembered for having impressively admitted that he was once a poacher but he stopped as soon as his community started benefiting from elephant hunting revenue. Right across the Chobe River in neighbouring Namibia, Carprivi, another community leader in Salambala Conservancy, Mr George Mutwa told a strikingly similar story saying he was once a poacher but stopped as soon as his community started benefiting from hunting revenue. The same stories were told by community leaders in Zimbabwe, including residents in Zambia, South Luangwa and Mozambique’s Tete Province under the Chumachato Project.

The lesson learnt is that the tangible benefits that the rural communities get from hunting revenues positively change southern African rural communities’ attitudes towards supporting wildlife, particularly conservation.

As long as they receive benefits from wildlife, they will look after it. This is the working wildlife conservation model that Western animal rights groups selfishly don’t want the world to know. Why? They fear that without an elephant-poaching crisis, their fundraising industry would collapse, bringing an end to their high salaries and lifestyles.

But Minister Mokaila said he wants the world to know that conservation without the people does not and would never work in Africa. He said President Masisi had already assigned him to start engaging western countries on this issue in the next few weeks. He has been mandated to explain to western countries, including the USA; what works and what does not work for wildlife conservation, including elephants in Botswana. The people of Botswana want to benefit from their wildlife.

“I find it absolutely hypocritical that on the other hand our western counterparts say they are committed to achieving sustainable development goals that include poverty alleviation but on the other hand are shutting down elephant hunting and ivory trade markets,” said Minister Mokaila. “They’re the biggest threat to wildlife conservation in Africa. What is the incentive for us to look after wildlife if it is not benefiting us?”

The people of Botswana in particular expect President Masisi to announce the resumption of elephant hunting in Botswana when he speaks at the Kasane Elephant Summit.

Meanwhile, Minister Mokaila said the summit is a great opportunity once again for Botswana to ensure its neighbouring southern African countries that “we support the region’s wildlife sustainable use agenda.”

The Kasane Elephant Summit comes at a time when many southern African countries were increasingly becoming anxious to know if Botswana had been captured by animal rights groups. This followed its untoward behaviour and decision to vote for up-listing southern African elephant populations to CITES Appendix I; at the 17th CITES meeting held in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2016.

“This was a directive from former Minister of Environment Tshekedi Khama, without consulting the cabinet,” said Minister Mokaila. He also went against Sadc’s pro-sustainable use position without consulting Sadc.”

The decision by Botswana’ former Environment Minister Khama was no different from a football player who deliberately scores an own goal on home soil in a World Cup tournament that many would like to win on home soil against all odds, in order to lift the spirits of its people. But that was the Botswana of yesterday under former President Khama. The Botswana of today under President Masisi is pro-sustainable use.

“This is why we have invited Sadc states to the Kasane Elephant Summit, in order to work towards a common elephant management and use approach in Africa,” said Minister Mokaila.

About the Writer: Emmanuel Koro is a Johannesburg-based international award-winning environmental journalist who has written extensively on environment and development issues in Africa.