Jumbo problem pits Botswana villagers against conservationists

Ishmael Simasiku, a farmer, says elephants damage his crops in the Kachikau village in Chobe district, northern Botswana. Last month, the government lifted a
blanket hunting ban, imposed in 2014 by then president Ian Khama, on the grounds that elephant numbers are growing. Picture: AFP

Ishmael Simasiku, a farmer, says elephants damage his crops in the Kachikau village in Chobe district, northern Botswana. Last month, the government lifted a blanket hunting ban, imposed in 2014 by then president Ian Khama, on the grounds that elephant numbers are growing. Picture: AFP

At least 34 people have been killed by elephants since the hunting ban came into effect – 15 last year alone, when 9,000 properties were destroyed.

An elephant carcass lies at the edge of a field in Legotlhwana village, northeast Botswana – evidence of the desperation and anger felt by a farmer whose crops have been repeatedly destroyed.

Ishmael Simasiku, 71, indignantly recounts how he was guarding his field, as he does every night, when an elephant broke through the perimeter fence and helped itself to his watermelons.

Simasiku’s attempts to repel the elephant using lights and gunshots fired into the air were futile. The animal only retreated briefly and returned.

Fed up, he shot it dead on May 14.

“The elephant came from the forest and was destroying my crops. The (sports hunting) ban made my life worse,” said Simasiku, holding a watermelon half-eaten by an elephant.

The retired policeman in this village near the border with Namibia has seen his maize harvest fall by about 90% over recent years as elephant numbers have boomed.

Under the country’s wildlife conservation policy, Botswana’s elephant population has increased nearly ten-fold since 1970, to 130,000 today, according to the UN Environment Programme.

As elephants grazed behind him in Chobe National Park, Thebeyakgosi Horatius, head of the park’s human-wildlife conflict office, confirms that elephants are “killing people and destroying their crops”.

His department runs a 24-hour emergency response team to react to elephant attacks.

Last month, the government lifted a blanket hunting ban, imposed in 2014 by then president Ian Khama, on the grounds that elephant numbers were growing.

Botswana fends off criticism of its decision to end the five-year ban on hunting, saying the move will not threaten the elephant population as the numbers are growing. Picture: AFP

The decision angered many conservationists and stirred up a political hornet’s nest as elections loom later this year.

“To me it’s so sad and extremely painful that all these years’ work to build up to what we had achieved is being put in reverse,” Khama said by telephone. “Our tourism is wildlife-based. We have already seen it taking a hit. I’m told our numbers have dropped by 10% since they started talking about restarting hunting.”

Tourism is the second-largest contributor to Botswana’s GDP after diamonds.

But an end to the ban on sports hunting has been welcomed by many Botswanans.

On April 26, Merafhe Shamukuni, 53, was walking home down a steep pathway in Kasane, Botswana’s wildlife tourist town, when he was attacked and killed by an elephant.

While global conservationists are up in arms over the resumption of hunting, locals appeal for understanding over problems caused by freely roaming elephants which live unfenced in Botswana.

“We are here in Africa, facing this on a daily basis and all they are interested in is to come and see those animals for a few hours and go back where they are comfortable. We are in trouble, something really has to be done,” said Shamukuni, who works at a four-star hotel in Kasane.

“I work in tourism, I know the importance of animals … but humans should be controlling the animals, not animals controlling us.”

At least 34 people have been killed by elephants since the hunting ban came into effect – 15 last year alone when 9,000 properties were destroyed, according to government statistics.

President Mokgweetsi Masisi, on a visit to the US, recently tweeted of another death from elephant trampling.

“The tragedy comes virtually 24 hours after I responded to an elephant protester in Las Vegas and now a brother has fallen,” he said.

Locals in Chobe district, home to Botswana’s largest concentration of elephants, fear being overrun.

“When we had hunting, we never had elephants coming into our villages,” said safari guide Petros Tshekonyane, 48, who recently found an elephant devouring his garden. “It has to come to an end. This is too much.”

Kavimba village chief Josephat Mwezi, 74, said: “ We are not after their extinction. We want them confined.”

Khama described most of the elephants as “refugees” fleeing poaching in Angola and Zambia and said they should be encouraged to return to their home ranges. – AFP

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