File photo: AP
How many people can say the stability of their country rests on another species?

Well, for Botswana, it seems elephants are at the centre of an environmental conundrum, that’s also the apparent centre of a political spat between former president Ian Khama and new president Mokgweetsi Masisi.

We’ll get to why Botswana’s elephants are so important in a bit, but for now, let’s focus on Khama and Masisi.

Khama, Botswana’s former president, is a keen conservationist. He suspended elephant hunting in 2014, as part of efforts to help save the species. 

Khama governed Botswana for ten years, until he handed over the reigns to his deputy Masisi, 18 months before his presidential term was to end, to give Masisi time to settle in and campaign. 

But, as soon as Masisi was inaugurated, it seems he was bent on undoing Khama’s legacy.

Masisi took over the presidency on April 1 this year, and one of his first acts as president was to lift the five year suspension on elephant hunting. 

That’s not all, though.

Khama claims Masisi is autocratic, and undoing Botswana’s legacy as a beacon of democracy.

Khama has even turned his back on the governing party his grandfather helped found. 

Masisi has met the criticism with a “meh”, saying Khama can choose to support whichever political party he likes when Botswana goes to the polls in October this year.

Now, back to the elephants. Late last year, a number of elephant carcasses were discovered, with their precious tusks missing. This sparked fears that poaching was on the rise, despite the government there denying there was a brewing crisis. 

Botswana is home to roughly a third of Africa’s African elephant population: about 130 thousand animals. 

Now, various arguments have been made about the fact that Botswana can no longer contain its huge elephant population.

Some have argued earth’s largest land mammal has done more harm than good.
Elephants roam free and in some cases, a passing herd may destroy the crops of an entire village, quite by accident. In fact, along some of Botswana’s highways, there are elephant warning signs, much like you’d see for other, more familiar livestock elsewhere in the world.

Botswana, for a long time at least, was a bastion of elephant conservation, but they’ve become a real nuisance, some have argued. Does this justify lifting the suspension on elephant hunting?

Maybe not so much, if fresh data is to be believed. 

In an article published in the New York Times, it’s believed some 385 animals were poached between 2017 and 2018, sparking  genuine concern. 

See, it’s a small number in the greater scheme of Botswana’s huge elephant population, but this kind of increase in poaching often precedes huge declines in numbers, according to the same article.

For example, Tanzania lost 60% of its elephants from 2009 to 2014, and a national reserve in Mozambique lost 78% of its elephants over the same period. Poaching is a massive problem and efforts to curb it requires community involvement and buy-in. 

But how do you convince a community that is already at odds with elephants to work with the government to try and protect them, especially if elephants have been responsible for the deaths of at least three of your fellow villagers recently?

Certainly a conundrum for Botswana to decipher.

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