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Elephants face uncertain future

By legalising hunting of jumbos in his country,  Botswana president Masisi has shocked conservationists across the world, who now fear extinction of the tusker could soon be a reality

Harriet James and Karen Karimi @harriet86jim @Karimi_karen

Elephant lovers are still reeling in shock a fortnight after Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi lifted a ban on elephant hunting, which was stopped by his predecessor, Ian Khama, in 2014.

Masisi cited a population increase as well as the livelihood of farmers and ordinary Tswanas being threatened by the animals as justification.  With an estimated 130,000 elephants, Botswana has the highest population of jumbos in the world.

Conservationists disagree strongly. “We are concerned that hunting causes extreme stress to elephants, which are intelligent, thinking, communicating animals. The elephants begin to associate humans with violence and they retaliate, hence the large number of human fatalities,” says Kenyan wildlife conservationist Paula Kahumbu, CEO, Wildlife Direct. 

Live elephant sales

Other southern African countries with large jumbo populations, Zimbabwe and Namibia, have also called for an end to the ban. Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnanangwa says  there is need to raise cash for conservation and anti-poaching programmes.

He further advocated for an end to a one-size fit all policy that tends to place all other African countries in one box without considering how each country will be affected.

Earlier in May, the cash-strapped government of Zimbabwe said it had sold nearly 100 elephants to China and Dubai for $2.7 million (Sh270 million) over six years, citing overpopulation in national parks, encroachment into human settlements, destruction of crops and posing a risk to human life.

According to a local newspaper, 93 elephants were flown to parks in China and four to Dubai from year 2012 to 2018. They were sold for between $13,500  (Sh1.37 million) and $41,500 (Sh4.2  million) each.

Botswana claims there has been an increase in human-elephant conflict, a consequence of the growing elephant population, and elephant-related damage to livestock. Elephants here are not confined to fenced reserves that allow them to migrate freely over large distances throughout the country and even cross into neighbouring countries.

Still, experts maintain hunting is not a credible method of population control or an effective means to combat higher rates of violence and damage. “Elephants are intelligent and move away from areas where they face danger.

Most of Botswana’s neighbours allow hunting and many animals have moved to Botswana because of the fear of poaching,” says Mark Jones, Veterinarian and Head of policy, Born Free Foundation.

Jim Justus Nyamu, an elephant scientist at  Elephant Neighbours Centre based in Kenya, says Botswana is playing a devil’s advocate rule here. “African leaders and policy makers have demonstrated conservation ignorance which now needs to be kindled,” he says.

According to Joseph Ogutu, a senior statistician at the Biostatistics Unit in the Institute of Crop Science at the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany, the notion that local farmers are being affected by elephants might be a cover-up for something bigger.

He says  peasants currently do not benefit from the animals because  of  the skewed distribution of wildlife benefits away from the rural poor.

Poaching of jumbos

Botswana goes into a general election in October. “The decision to lift the ban on the eve of political elections would seem more designed to appease the rural electorate than to promote sustainable conservation. Already, there are reports of poaching of elephants in northern Botswana,” argues Ogutu. 

The controlled trade in ivory debate has been a bone of contention in most African summits. While the southern Africa countries desire for a lift on the ban, others fear that the lack of tracking systems that are dependable might open doors of illegal trade and poaching.

A hundred years ago, there were an estimated five million elephants in Africa. By 1979, the numbers had dropped to 1.3 million, 50 per cent of which were wiped out between 1979 and 1989.

This led to an ivory ban in 1989 when only 600,000 elephants were left across the whole continent. The ban reduced poaching, allowing populations to recover to an estimated 415,000 today, according to the World Wildlfe Fund (WWF).   

But the respite was short-lived. The decisions by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) in 1999 to allow so-called ‘one-off’ sales of stockpiled ivory by some countries to Japan, and again in 2002 and 2008, had catastrophic consequences. It led to a fresh surge in poaching and hundreds of thousands more elephants were killed to feed the soaring global demand for ivory.

In 2016, the first-ever aerial census of Africa’s elephants was conducted by the Great Elephant Census (GEC) funded by Paul G Allen and carried out with the aid of NGO Elephants without Borders, among others. It revealed shocking declines in elephant populations beyond the worst expectations.

The greatest declines of jumbos was in Tanzania and Mozambique, with a combined loss of 73,000 elephants in five years. In northern Cameroon, survey teams could count no more than 148 elephants – along with many carcasses – revealing a tiny population in danger of extinction.

By contrast, South Africa, Uganda, parts of Malawi and Kenya, and the W-Arli-Pendjari conservation complex in Benin and Burkina Faso – the only area in West Africa with significant numbers of savannah elephants – were found to have stable or slightly growing herds. Still, animals have been poached in Tsavo National Park and in other game reserves in Kenya in the last five years.

Botswana stronghold

Zambia had 20,839 elephants, an 11 per cent decline during the past decade. But a regional population in the southwestern corner of the country has been even worse hit by poaching: researchers counted just 48 elephants in Sioma Ngwezi National Park, down from 900 in 2004. At the current poaching rate, this local population also faces extirpation.

Angola too gave a shock. Once hoped to be a refuge for elephants after decades of civil war, it now has one of the highest poaching rates on the continent, leading to a 22 per cent drop in elephant numbers since 2005.

Namibia, with a significant elephant population, opted not to participate in the census. Wide-ranging surveys conducted there in 2015 yielded an estimate of nearly 23,000 elephants.

Africa’s forest elephants have fared even worse: more than 25,000 of Gabon’s forest elephants (80 per cent of the population), were killed in the 10 years to 2014. Gabon’s Minkébé National Park populatio had plunged from about 35,000 to about 7,000.

Botswana remains the continent’s elephant stronghold, with 130,000. Unfortunately, the fortress has been broken into and things might just fall apart.

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