Botswana Elephants

Botswana’s Human/Animal conflict dilemma

Recently, the President of Botswana, Mokgweetsi Masisi, frustrated by European moves to ban the import of hunting trophies from his country recently threatened to send 20 000 elephants to Germany so that they “should live with animals the way you tell us to.”

It’s political theatre, but it underlies a serious dilemma for Botswana.

The dark shadows emerge from the lacy branches of the dimly starlit thorn veld. Huge and bulky, the elephants move silently through the bush. One of them passes not 10 metres in front of me. I stop and watch in awe as this magnificent creature moves so powerfully and so elegantly through its environment, so at one with the world around it.

Later, as I am lying in bed in my tent in the safari lodge, I am surrounded by clear, gentle sounds in the darkness. The chink, chink of a blacksmith plover, the hoof beats of impala running over the dusty earth, the rhythmic rise and fall of a multitude of different insects filling the cool air.

I think idly that I know of no famous artwork that captures Eden at night, but this is it – an ecology of audible silence, teeming with life in the darkness, surrounding me, filling my senses with wonder.

No artwork could capture it, it has to be experienced to be understood. To gain this understanding is why millions of tourists come to the African bush, to find something of life that no longer exists in most of modern life.

This cool, harmony-layered night is a gift never to be taken for granted. To be actively aware of its fragile beauty is a spiritual choice we must make. To carry that awareness into our frantic, day-to-day existence is not only a blessing to hold onto, but in a time of destructive climate change, and multiple environmental catastrophes that batter our planet, it is also a moral choice we need to make: actively to work every day to preserve this Eden that is fast being smashed and burned by extreme temperatures and other environmental disasters.

In the distance, before I fall asleep, I can hear elephants drinking at their waterhole. They make the characteristic sounds of all mammals, including humans, snuffling, grunts, splashing and sucking the water with deep pleasure.

It is simply heart stopping, the beauty of all this, of all of these animals living in their natural environment, and, at the lodge I am staying in north-eastern Botswana, the owners have found a way for humans and elephants to live together. They maintain the waterhole and every night, the elephants come to drink here, delighting the tourists who come to see them and experience their magnificence so close up.

It’s not always easy, maintaining this balance. The elephants have been known to break into bathrooms looking for water and, every night, the lodge has to turn off the water, so the elephants don’t pull up the pipes and destroy the plumbing infrastructure.

It takes effort, but it works. The elephants are never aggressive, and they approach the lodge and the humans inside it without fear.  “There is a way to live together,’ the owner says.

A 110 km or so away by road is another world, a village deep in the hinterland of Botswana, close to the Zimbabwe border and Hwange National Park. Here, in this remote village of some 200 inhabitants, I meet Mary.  The 61-year-old mother of two lives in tiny hut with her son, Molefi (28) and her daughter Bontle (9). (Not their real names) Mary washes clothes and gathers firewood to earn a small living, and Molefi contributes by taking care of other people’s cattle. Bontle is mentally handicapped, and this places an extra burden on the family.

Mary is wearing a bright orange dress and a scrupulously clean white sun hat. She is a woman who takes pride in her appearance, despite her difficult circumstances.

Her home is a bleak and empty round hut, with a worn thatch roof. Inside is a bare dusty floor and mud walls with a few household implements: sleeping rolls, a blackened kettle and some tin mugs and plates neatly stacked at the edge of the wall.

She and her family are destitute, barely surviving.

The family drink a cup of tea around a fire outside their hut as they begin to tell us their story.

Their father, Simon, (not his real name) was killed by an elephant almost exactly a year ago, on 7 May. He, too, was a herdsman for other people and he took the cattle to drink at a waterhole when a thirsty, desperate elephant attacked him. He was trampled to death by the animal before it disappeared back into the undergrowth.

Mary takes us to the watering point deep in the bush.  There are two deep sandy holes that no elephant could climb in and out of without being trapped. There is very little water in the bottom of the sandy pits and Mary picks up a dented bucket and shows us how Simon must have cleared away the sand, half filling it with water, climbed up the loose sand at the side of the pit and carried this barely filled bucket of water across the dry grass to pour into a trough where the cattle can drink. He would have had to make dozens of such backbreaking trips to water even a small herd of cattle.

The elephants roaming freely nearby must have smelled the moisture he had released into the parched atmosphere. One of them may have first drunk at the trough, but there could never be enough water there to satisfy its thirst. The scent of water in the drought-stricken land must have driven it crazy, and so it attacked the human carrying the precious liquid.

His death was both an emotional and a financial catastrophe for Mary and her family.

“Ever since my husband was killed,” she says. “Things have been bad for us. Often, I am heart sore and I miss him terribly. Now that we have lost him its difficult to support the family.

With trembling hands Molefi holds out a tattered piece of paper, It is the only tangible memory he has of his father – a folded and worn photocopy of his national identity card. Simon’s face is barely visible as a ghostly visage of smudged black and white. Molefi says little, but his hands tell the story of his pain.

“It’s not healthy to live with elephants,” Mary says. “If the government can’t drive the elephants away, then Europeans must come and hunt them. I would be happy to see that, it would bring jobs for our people.”

She becomes emphatic. “The elephants must go. Away from here. If there’s nothing else to do, then they must be killed. I hate these animals so much.”

There is no way to gainsay her suffering; but there is the reality of humans actually killing these intelligent creatures. There is footage taken in the Kruger Park about a decade ago of a legal, properly supervised, culling of elephants by the wildlife authorities.

They allowed cameras in good faith, if perhaps naively, and the resulting footage echoes with horror down the years.

It is a ghastly pornography of violent death for the elephants: one of them shot in the head, another with its throat slit. I won’t go on – but let’s be clear: this is not random brutality. It is a meaningful, considered attempt to find a solution to elephant overcrowding.

The debate over what actually constitutes overcrowding goes on and has not been resolved satisfactorily.

Very few people actually want to kill elephants. We identity deeply with elephants for the intelligent, highly sentient beings they are – as we should.

Killing elephants is no solution. It is a horrible, pitiless action. As our collective conscious of the fragile earth grows, I cannot see how shooting a wild animal in the head (if you are a skilled hunter) or grievously wounding it several times before it dies in agony (if you’re not) is something we should want to do. It is beyond me to imagine willfully inflicting such suffering on any creature.

And yet many, perhaps most people in Botswana see the massive numbers of elephants in their country as having become a problem.  By some estimates the number of elephants has grown from approximately 10 000 in the 1960s to 130 000 today.

The country is respected worldwide for its excellent wildlife management, some 40% of its land is dedicated to national parks and they are well-maintained.

Botswana today is caught in the middle of a dilemma. It is paying the price for its environmental success. As both human and elephant populations grow, so the struggle between them for land, food and, especially, water grows. And the conflict is growing fast. The effect of climate change is a shifting unknown in exactly how it worsens this situation.

Former President Ian Khama placed a moratorium on hunting in the country from 2014, but in 2019, the newly elected president Mokgweetsi Masisi lifted it. Less than 400 elephants are allowed to be shot every year under strict licensing conditions.

Recently, Masisi, frustrated by European moves to ban the import of hunting trophies from his country recently threatened to send 20 000 elephants to Germany so that they “should live with animals the way you tell us to.”

Hunting itself is certainly no solution to this problem of overpopulation, but for many in Botswana it is something that offers a solution to one of the country’s greatest problems: unemployment, which stands at nearly 26%. It is also argued that by creating financial incentives through hunting this contributes to an increased willingness to preserve these animals’ existence.

One afternoon I am taken on a game drive by a guide whom I shall call Kefentse. We drive through the open bushveld of northeastern Botswana, looking for elephants. It’s late in the afternoon by the time we spot the first small groups. The rains have come, as the end of the season this year, but they have come and there is plenty of water for now so the elephants are wandering, dispersed wherever they can drink and wallow in the mud.

We stop to look at a group of them at a waterhole. “Elephants are part of us, part of our culture,” Kefentse says. “Many of our people have elephants as their name, their totem for their heritage. They give that respect to the elephants.”

He is clear though, on hunting and on the subject of Europeans banning the import of hunting trophies from Botswana, and he agrees with his president on this. “I don’t support that hunting should be banned, and I think we should be able to export trophies to Europe. It’s very important for our economy to allow hunting. The unemployment rate in Botswana is very high and hunting companies create jobs.”

Kefentse pauses and looks out at the matriarch and her small family. “I love elephants. I love it when I guide people about elephants. You will hear my expression in my voice, and you will know that this person loves elephants.”

In the park, the day is ending, the air is cooling, and the shadows are growing long on the grass.

“But here they are not showing their other behaviours. Somewhere else where they are close to villages, they destroy a farm. They kill people and you ask: ‘They are lovely animals, but how can they do this to humans?’”

What do we say to Kefentse, or to Mary as she mourns the terrifying, mauled death of her husband that has left her and her family on the edge of survival?

Or to President Masisi who has the difficult task of making policy decisions to manage the human/wildlife conflict in his country?

What is the solution then?

Of course, sending 20 000 elephants to Germany is political theatre, but it hits cleanly at the very nub of the problem: the elephants are in Africa, not in Europe.

To potentially ban the import of hunting trophies, though, is not mere irrational sanctimony on the part of Europeans. Even legal hunting can conceal a multitude of wildlife crimes. Poaching tends to rise as hunting grows. Traders in endangered species can use forged export permits to send their illegal wares to international markets.  It is also questionable often how much of the money spent on hunting really finds its way into the poor rural communities that live near the animals’ habitat.

But nor is Botswana, or Africa in general, a giant zoo, its animal populations managed for the moral certainties of Western activists or for the safari fantasies of their tourists.

These sentiments do, however, play a role. Europeans have the right to decide what values to hold, and where to spend their tourist Euros. But, at the same time, it should not be forgotten that the origins of the indiscriminate hunting of elephants should figure profoundly in the conscience of white Europeans. The mass slaughter of elephants was mostly conducted by colonial hunters, so Africans find it deeply galling that Europeans today are telling them how to run their affairs, and how to live with the elephants who share their land.

There are no easy answers. What remedies there may be are complex and require money, lots of it.

It is absolutely not a solution for Westerners to attempt to dictate to Africans how they should manage their wildlife resources. The West, especially Europe with its legacy of plunder and racism on the continent, is morally obliged, firstly, and most importantly, to listen to Africans today and to hear what they have to say. Secondly, conservationists and animal rights activists should work pro-actively to find ways, through both government and private investors, to find and to fund meaningful solutions that don’t involve the killing of elephants.

There are multiple places to begin: for a start, Western countries could ramp up law enforcement training, assistance and cooperation to reduce poaching and the trade in endangered species. Other, longer term, more complicated solutions would be things like assistance in better spatial planning for rapidly growing human populations, more investment in employment that is not reliant on hunting, better tourism options (although Botswana, in particular, has managed tourism excellently) perhaps even ambitious projects like better conceived and managed cross-frontier parks like already exist in the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area are certainly endeavors that require as much assistance as possible.

If, for example, more elephants were to migrate through Namibia into the extraordinary landscape of southern Angola, that would ease the pressure on Botswana. One difficulty here seems to be that elephants very possibly have an ancestral memory of the danger caused by the decades of war in the region and are reluctant to travel there.

No elephant deserves to die from a hunter’s rifle, but the reality is that many see hunting as an important economic contributor to Botswana at present. A number of animal rights activists argue this is not true. The real economics remain a source of bitter, emotional debate. Understandably so.

Still from an African perspective, Europeans banning the import of hunting trophies feels too much like their old oppressors still telling them how they should live within their own countries, and, infuriatingly, what ethical choices they should be forced to make. It smacks of cultural and self-regarding moral supremacy.

Banning the import of hunting trophies might satisfy European consciences, but what does such a ban mean for Africans? That is a question it seems too few Europeans are willing to ask, especially of the Africans themselves.

The last of the season’s rain clouds billow on the horizon. The blue and dove greys of the cooling sky sliding over each other like currents in an ocean.

Kefentse looks out over the landscape as the elephants begin to walk in a line across the horizon. There is the chink, chink of a blacksmith plover, other nocturnal birds are beginning to stir. Night will soon turn into darkness and its glorious audible silence where elephants and other creatures roam as silent, shadows, perfect in their environment.

“How can I explain it?” Kefentse says in answer to his own question. “The elephants are aggressive because there are too many and there is not enough food for them. There’s not enough water for them, so all that causes aggression. Then they do kill people. If it wasn’t for the overpopulation, then that wouldn’t happen.”

Winner of the Standard Bank Sikuvile Journalism Awards for Columns and Opinion, 2023.

Winner of the 2022 National Press Club’s Journalist of the Year: Print/Online Features/ Investigative Journalism Award.

Author of 10 novels, including Red Air and House of War.

Author of a best-selling children’s adventure series called Arabella.

In television, he has worked for a number of international networks, including National Geographic, CNN, BBC, NBC, Al Jazeera English, ZDF, and ARD.

He has written hundreds of articles for publications including BBC, National Geographic Traveler, GQ, Maclean’s Magazine in Canada, TravelAfrica in the UK, The New Zealand Herald, The Buffalo News in the US, The Sunday Times, Business Day, The Sunday Independent in Johannesburg and many others.