Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Anyone want some elephants?

 Michael - Alternate Thursdays

Elephants on the Chobe River

The President of Botswana and his conservation minister are offering large numbers of elephants around. Especially to countries making noises about elephant conservation so that they can find out what it’s like to live with elephants as neighbors. The first offer was from Botswana’s wildlife minister, Dumezweni Mthimkhulu. In London last month to lobby members of Parliament, he offered Britain 10,000 elephants, saying “I hope if my offer of elephants is accepted by the British government, they will be kept in London’s Hyde Park because everyone goes there. I want Britons to have a taste of living alongside elephants, which are overwhelming my country. In some areas, there are more of these beasts than people.” (If “some areas” is the Chobe National Park this is hardly surprising or undesirable!)

Hyde Park.
Just add elephants and mix well...

Then, a few days ago the president of Botswana, Mokgweetsi Masisi, trumped this by offering Germany 20,000 elephants, although he was less prescriptive about where they should live.  How about the Black Forest? Probably the elephants would make themselves at home there, with plenty of tasty trees to eat and abundant water. They might find it a bit chilly in winter, but they seem to find Namibia okay, and the nights can get pretty cold there. What the local Germans would think about it is more of a question. And that’s the point.
Black forest. Good for elephants?

Although Minister Mthimkhulu eventually backed down and said that his offer was “rhetorical” (so no elephants for Hyde Park after all, I’m afraid), the president was more forceful, pointing out that Botswana had successfully transferred 8,000 elephants to Angola and some 500 to Mozambique, and stating that he wouldn’t “take no for an answer”.

Standard way to transport one elephant.
They are unconscious at this point.
How do you handle 8,000?

So what is causing the Botswana government to offer large parcels of pachyderms to countries all over the world? It worked with Angola and Mozambique, but I guess they actually wanted the elephants.

The fact is that Botswana does have a surfeit of elephants. The previous president, Ian Khama, had a policy that wildlife would earn its keep through high-end tourism. He banned trophy hunting, cracked down hard on poaching, and welcomed international tourists in droves. Nature took its course, and now Botswana has around 130,000 elephants, about a third of the world’s total population. To hear President Masisi tell it, it sounds as though you might bump into an elephant anywhere in Botswana, or more frighteningly, it might bump into you. In fact, much of Botswana is arid Kalahari scrub and that’s not where the elephants like to hang out. They are concentrated up in the north in the magnificent Chobe National Park, particularly along the Chobe and Zambezi rivers. 

Elephant in Kasane at night.

However, elephants are nomads, and in Kasane, a town on the Chobe River, you may well see elephants wondering around the town perhaps helping themselves to a tasty hedge. More seriously, they will help themselves to crops the surrounding people depend on for their livelihoods, and there have been some bad experiences with injuries and even deaths of local people. In the national parks themselves, the trees are groaning (or dying) under the browsing pressure of the huge animals.

Masisi has reversed Khama’s ban on trophy hunting and that’s what all the fuss is about. The UK has introduced legislation to ban the import of trophies from endangered species, and elephants qualify as endangered pretty much everywhere outside southern Africa. Germany is talking about doing the same thing. Botswana says that that will just make the elephant problem worse at the same time as depriving the country of important revenue supporting local people, conservation and wildlife management.

Traffic Jam.

Let’s unpack that a bit. First, there are only a few hundred hunting licenses issued in a year, so in reality that won’t make much of an impact on the population. However, trophy hunters want the best tuskers and that can have an impact on the long term tusk quality of the population. While it’s true that a trophy hunt of a couple of weeks will cost of the order of $50,000 (and very few tourists will spend anything like that sort of money), it’s arguable how much of that money makes its way down to the people living with elephants.

Elephants in Savuti. Not much left to eat...

On the other hand, alternate population control options include culling (i.e. hunting without trophies that costs money) and contraceptives that can also be expensive and hard to administer. (No, we are not talking about condoms here.) Botswana argues that banning the import of trophies, as the UK and Germany want to do, is interfering with Botswana’s internal affairs and wildlife management. They ask how hunting elephants for trophies is different from hunters heading off to shoot deer for their antlers, which is often described as supporting deer population control, and takes place every season in the UK and Germany among other countries.




  1. I had no idea there was this problem with too many elephants in this particular part of the country, Michael. I can see that some kind of answer does need to be found. Interesting.

  2. Yes, it's surprising because poaching pressure is what one hears about and that is very real elsewhere in Africa. Here our main problem is with rhino poaching, but that is also improving. Hopefully one day we will have too many rhinos as well...