Wildlife Groups Outraged: Botswana Lifts Elephant Hunting Moratorium
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
OK. We're going to shift our focus across the world to Botswana. The southern African country is home to more elephants than any other country in the world. There are about 130,000 or so of them. But the government says violent run-ins between elephants and humans are on the rise. Last spring, the government lifted a hunting moratorium and allowed up to 400 elephants to be hunted every year. Reporter Krista Mahr traveled to Chobe District in Botswana to bring us the story.
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KRISTA MAHR, BYLINE: Flying over the Chobe River in northern Botswana, it's easy to see why this is one of the best places in the world to see African elephants. Hundreds of elephants gather along the river's edge at the end of the day to take a drink. It's a spectacular sight. But humans living on the ground below will tell you those elephants are not always good neighbors.
Just a few hundred feet away from the river, Chibeya Longwani grows a beautiful field of leafy spinach. He plucks a bunch, gives it a whack and wraps it with a rubber band in one practiced stroke. It's good money selling these greens to safari lodges down the road. But he has a problem - the kind of problem that weighs about 13,000 pounds and likes spinach.
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MAHR: That is Longwani's elephant early warning system - a string of cans strung up on a fence surrounding his farm.
CHIBEYA LONGWANI: They make lot of noise, yeah, then I start to wake up.
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MAHR: Humans and elephants have always lived together here. Mostly, they've learned how to stay out of each other's way, but human-elephant run-ins have been on the rise across Botswana. More than a dozen people have been killed by elephants in the country since last year. Thebeyakgosi Horatius heads the government's wildlife team in Chobe District. He says the problem got worse after hunting was banned in 2014.
THEBEYAKGOSI HORATIUS: Before the hunting ban, the elephants' range was mostly restricted to the game reserves and the forest reserves. But now, because they are feeling comfortable - they are not being disturbed with the shootings - they come through the villages. So they are free to go wherever they want to go.
MAHR: Officials say hunting will control herd numbers and create jobs catering to rich trophy hunters who paid as much as $50,000 to shoot big male elephants. The decision outraged wildlife groups, but Chobe residents say outsiders simply cannot understand what it's like to live among tens of thousands of elephants. Here's Horatius.
HORATIUS: I believe if they can come, that's when they can really see how the conflict, it is troubling the country. It's putting our lives in danger here.
MAHR: Horatius's office evaluates the damage wildlife does to farms and other property and pays compensation to residents, in part to discourage people from taking matters into their own hands. It happens. In June, three elephants were killed in Chobe District in a single night by farmers protecting their fields.
TEMPE ADAMS: It's got to be in here, Izz.
IZZY MWEZI: (Unintelligible).
SUZE BONNEMA: It's got to be in here.
MWEZI: Somewhere, yeah.
MAHR: Tempe Adams is a researcher with Elephants Without Borders, a group that tracks elephants in Botswana. On a recent day, Adams drives deep into the long yellow grass of the bush to examine a carcass with her colleague Izzy Mwezi and district wildlife official Tirelo Malcom Ramatsipele.
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MAHR: We smell it before we see it. The team is on the lookout for predators that might already be feeding on the decomposing animal.
ADAMS: Oh, yeah. Now you can smell it.
TIRELO MALCOM RAMATSIPELE: Got to be careful for lion.
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MAHR: Ramatsipele starts clapping to scare any animals away. Flies swarm a large male elephant lying on its side. The threesome debates how it might have died. It could have been anthrax, a natural disease common this time of year. Or it could have been shot by a farmer.
ADAMS: A bull, like, 20 to 30 years old, hey?
RAMATSIPELE: Yeah, it's a bull.
ADAMS: Yeah. There's no signs of anthrax. I would suspect that it's been shot.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.
MAHR: Adams and her team have been working with farmers to install inexpensive technologies like electrified wires, motion-activated elephant alarms and strobe lights. We traveled to another farm in Chobe where the group helped 65-year-old Jackson Maruza put up a set of those lights on his farm fence so he could grow maize. It worked. He was able to harvest his crops successfully, but the elephants still managed to get it after it was stored away from the lights. Jackson says he supports the government's decision to bring hunting back.
JACKSON MARUZA: The problem is the elephant are so many. What we need is just to reduce their number.
MAHR: But it's precisely the numbers of elephants that draw many tourists. It's sunset in Kasane, which sits just outside Chobe National Park. A flotilla of boats ferries tourists back from their safari drives down the Chobe River. Suze Bonnema and her family came from the Netherlands to see the elephants.
BONNEMA: As a tourist, it's great. But for people who live here, I can understand it's a problem. And maybe hunting is a part of a solution. Rich tourists pay for it. I wouldn't - I wouldn't ever, but it also brings money.
MAHR: But other tourists are already canceling their trips.
GRANT NEL: Certainly, the clientele that I deal with find hunting abhorrent.
MAHR: That's longtime wildlife guide Grant Nel. He says many of his clients are conflicted about coming back to Botswana since the ban was lifted.
NEL: I can fully understand where they're coming from and why they wouldn't want to support it.
MAHR: For NPR News, I'm Krista Mahr in Kasane, northern Botswana.
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