Botswana, which has the world’s biggest population of elephants, lifted its suspension on hunting, a move that is likely to spark further debate on a politically charged issue in the southern African nation.
The government would ensure that “reinstatement of hunting is done in an orderly and ethical manner” and in accordance with the law and regulations, the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism said in emailed statement Wednesday. The ban was put in place in 2014 by former President Ian Khama.
The number of elephants in Botswana has almost tripled to 160,000 since 1991, according to the government, increasing conflict between farmers and the animals, which at times destroy crops and kill villagers while also damaging ecosystems by tearing down trees. While hunting wouldn’t meaningfully reduce the number of elephants, income from the sport, could benefit communities in areas where the animals live. The average elephant hunt costs $45,000 in neighboring countries where the practice is legal.
Critics, including former President Ian Khama, say the drive is geared to win rural votes in an October election and could damage tourism, which accounts for a fifth of the economy, second only to diamond mining.
The Botswana Wildlife Producers Association, which represent ranchers who breed game for meet and hunting, welcomed the decision.
“Conservation of our species is paramount, but communities’ rights and livelihoods are as important as the species itself,” spokeswoman Debbie Peak said in a text message.
Still, conservationists say Botswana is one of the animal’s last safe havens in Africa and believe President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s motives for lifting the ban were political. Support for his Botswana Democratic Party, in power since independence from the U.K. in 1966, reached a record low of 46% in the last vote in 2014.
Lifting the ban would appeal to villagers struggling to keep elephants out of their fields and boost Masisi’s popularity ahead of general elections in October.
Most of Botswana’s elephants live in the country’s northeast, an area of savanna and wetlands, and regularly cross into Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia, which have large populations of their own. There are about 415,000 elephants left in Africa with the population having been decimated through poaching for ivory, mainly in East Africa .
“Botswana faces unique challenges in managing its large elephant population,” said Barnaby Phillips, director of communications for the Elephant Protection Initiative, an organization that’s working to shut down the ivory trade.
— With assistance by Mbongeni Mguni, and Antony Sguazzin