At least 385 elephants were poached in the last year, however the Botswana government has just set an annual quota of 400 elephants to be killed by trophy hunters and proposes to amend the CITES listing of the African elephant to allow for trade in ivory.
“There has been an increase in poaching, that we admit”, said Kitso Mokaila (Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, Conservation and Tourism) in a recent CNN interview. However, the government does not seem to fully accept the grave poaching levels that Botswana is now experiencing or the fact that trophy hunting will exacerbate this.
Evidence of a nearly 600% increase in fresh elephant carcasses, poached most likely during 2017-18, is presented in a peer reviewed paper “Evidence of a Growing Elephant Poaching Problem in Botswana”, published in the Current Biology journal.
Many of the elephant carcasses of suspected poaching victims found during the 2018 aerial survey, were verified on the ground by Dr Mike Chase and his Elephants Without Borders (EWB) team and all showed the horrific signs of poaching. Their skulls are hacked away with axes to remove the tusks and their mutilated bodies are covered with branches to literally conceal the evidence. Some elephants even had their spines severed to immobilise the animals that were obviously still alive while the poachers removed their tusks.
The poaching levels found by EWB during their aerial survey is extremely worrying. Chase (Founder and Director – EWB) said “the evidence in this paper is indisputable and supports our warning that elephant bulls are being killed by poaching gangs in Botswana; we need to stop them before they become bolder.
Every poached elephant found by Chase and his team was a mature bull between the age of 30-60 years old with large tusks that are worth many thousands of dollars on the black market.
Both poachers and trophy hunters have a clear preference for the largest and older bull elephants with the biggest tusks, which are mostly bulls older than 35 years. These bulls are incredibly important to the social fabric of the elephant population, to the photographic safari industry and to the long-term sustainability of trophy hunting industry itself.
However, is a hunting quota of 400 elephants, exacerbated by nearly as many poached bulls, sustainable?
The total mature bull population in Botswana is around 20 600, according to the EWB 2018 aerial survey. At best, 6,000 of those are bulls older than 35 years.
When President Mokgweetsi Masisi opens the trophy hunting season, Botswana could potentially lose 785 bulls to both trophy hunting and poaching. In other words, 13% of the mature and mostly sexually active bulls will be removed from the elephant population per year.
Hunters themselves believe that a quota of 0.35% of the total population, or approximately 7% of the mature bulls, is the maximum sustainable “off-take” without losing the highly desirable tusk size. However, this doesn’t take into account the additional “off-take” due to poaching, which makes the current quota in Botswana nearly double this” sustainable” level.
Even if poaching levels do not increase, it would take a mere 7-8 years to eliminate all mature bull elephants, which is obviously nowhere near sustainable.
The pro-hunting lobby will quickly argue that the poaching happens because the hunting concessions were left abandoned. However, poaching in Botswana only started to escalate some time during 2017, three full years after the hunting moratorium was put into place.
Natural population growth will slow down this impact, but in those areas where both hunting and poaching takes place, the mature bull population will be severely reduced, which will have a bearing on the social structure of those elephant populations.
Dr Michelle Henley (Director, Co-founder and Principal Researcher – Elephants Alive) says “older bulls have a higher paternity success, promote group cohesion, function as mentors within bachelor groups, and suppress musth in younger bulls”.
The latter is particularly important, as the absence of older bulls means that youngster come into musth too early, making them potentially more aggressive. This aggression could lead to increases in Human-Elephant Conflict, the very issue that the Botswana government hopes to reduce by reintroducing trophy hunting.
The long-term selective “off-take” of large tuskers also affects the genetic diversity of elephants, leading to populations with smaller tusks and even tuskless elephants. This change in genetics not only affects the long-term survival of these elephants, but also has direct consequences for the sustainability of the trophy hunting industry itself.
The illegal killing of elephants for their ivory has reached unsustainable levels across Africa, where the number of elephants illegally killed now exceeds the natural reproduction. It is estimated that one elephant is killed every 30 minutes.
Even though elephants have been massacred in most of Africa for some time now, Botswana’s elephant population has been more or less stable since early 2010 with a healthy population of about 126,000 elephants.
Chase said, “I am confident that all stakeholders can work together to implement necessary measures to curtail poaching. In the end, Botswana will be judged not for having a poaching problem, but for how it deals with it.”