Last month, I attended the funeral of two villagers in my homeland, Botswana. Both were in their teens, tragically killed by charging wild buffalo as they travelled to school and work.
Sadly, this was not an isolated incident.
Just weeks later, I learnt the heartbreaking news that a young father had been killed by an elephant as he walked to his farm in a small village within the Okavango Delta, leaving behind a widow and children.
Burying family members killed by wildlife, or losing entire crops to marauding elephant herds, is all too common in my country. Our lives are inextricably linked to the wild animals who share our home.
Yet it’s a reality often lost on well-meaning people living in the West.
For many around the world, African wildlife is a sentimental showreel on a nature documentary.
Philda Nani Kereng, Botswanan Minister of Environment and Tourism
An elephant which has been hunted in Botswana is butchered by villagers
It is this understandable but misplaced impression — held by both the public and policymakers — that, I fear, has led to the proposed Hunting Trophies (Import Prohibition) Bill, which would ban the importation of wildlife trophies into the UK.
Last month, the Bill passed its second reading in the House of Lords, and is currently awaiting the crucial Committee Stage.
Given the urgency, last week I travelled to London to highlight the terrible impact this Bill would have on conservation efforts, not only in my country but in other African nations as well.
Of course, this might come as a surprise to Mail readers disgusted by the thought of someone slaughtering for sport any of the magnificent animals roaming across the beautiful African landscape.
And believe me, I do understand the horror people feel when they see a photograph of a trophy hunter posing beside a recent kill. Lion killings in particular seem to cause outrage among Britons, especially after the notorious shooting of Cecil the lion by a U.S. trophy hunter in Zimbabwe in 2015.
The widely circulated picture of Walter Palmer standing over Cecil’s body became emblematic of man’s destructive relationship with nature.
Reasonable though this reaction is, it is a knee-jerk one. It fails to acknowledge that for many African nations, trophy hunting is vital for the local population.
It is a wildlife conservation measure that generates income used to combat illegal poaching, support community development and enhance habitat protection.
Hunting revenue has connected villages to clean water and electricity, built roads and schools, founded businesses and helped struggling families. It has also created watering holes for animals that lie safely beyond village boundaries, and created animal-proof censors that can alert villagers if wildlife is close.
Sadly, all too often, Westerners focus solely on animal welfare at the expense of human life in Africa.
Botswana’s president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, summarised this beautifully in 2019 when he suggested that Western policymakers seem to believe no humans actually live in our vast continent. ‘It is just a big zoo,’ as he put it. ‘And they are the keepers.’
To talk about wildlife without taking into account lives and livelihoods is a terrible misstep — which is why, while prioritising sustainable development, the Botswanan government also puts people at the heart of policy.
So how does it work in practice? Since the 1980s, and with the ongoing support of the UK, we have implemented a community-based natural resource management programme, allocating hunting quotas to communities, administered by a trust set up by villagers.
Once issued with their quota, they can then find global partners who will pay for the right to hunt.
These rights are tightly controlled and hunting without a permit carries a hefty prison term ranging from five to ten years.
The revenue from these permits goes directly into the community coffers.
Last year, our government raised £1,635,000 from a ‘Special Elephant Quota’ of 70 elephants, money that was channelled into improving the lives of rural communities.
This much-needed infrastructure and financial support improves life for many of Botswana’s 2.5 million-strong population, and also plays a crucial role in promoting harmony between people and animals.
This is vital. Any rural resident in our country knows that living among wildlife means living with risk.
An elephant which has been hunted and killed is transported in Botswana to the nearest village to be butchered
Africans in many countries are confronted by huge populations of elephants that cause immense damage to crops and pose a threat to people’s lives
People travel to work on land where wild buffalo and elephants roam alongside hyenas and wild dogs. Over the past ten years, an average of five people each year have been killed by elephants, with many others injured.
But at least communities now know that this risk is being balanced by laws, strategies and policies that promote sustainability as well as safety and prosperity.
Trophy hunting is also not the major threat to the survival of animals that its opponents like to suggest. Habitat loss, land conversion and human-wildlife conflict are far more important.
The numbers speak for themselves. Botswana is a conservation success story, with more than 40 per cent of land mass reserved for wildlife conservation, protecting large populations of threatened species including — at approximately 150,000 — the largest herd of elephants in the world.
This flies in the face of the prophecy made by former president, Ian Khama — who had criminalised trophy-hunting in 2014 — ominously warning that every day without a ban on hunting trophies brought elephants nearer to extinction.
It is also worth noting that during the four years in which this ill-conceived ban was in place, many communities experienced a significant reduction in income, employment prospects and increased food insecurity due to a lack of game meat.
None of this is to deny that trophy hunting continues to be a delicate balancing act for the entire African continent. Indeed, there are countries that are not working hard enough and whose conservation efforts would not withstand scrutiny.
Sadly, the UK’s proposed Bill fails to distinguish African countries with strong governance, such as Botswana, from those with weaker checks and balances — as well as failing to differentiate between legally and illegally sourced trophies.
The UK has been a strong and reliable ally to my beloved homeland, investing £100 million in our country and other ecologically sensitive landscapes through the Biodiverse Landscape Fund (BLF).
However, in its current format, the proposed Hunting Trophies Bill has the potential to undo so much of the worthwhile work achieved over the past 35 years.
Unpalatable though the concept may be to many, it is not enough to look at an animal and say that it is beautiful and does not deserve to die.
I am here to tell you on behalf of my country and many governments across Africa, that to save the animal kingdom we must put sentiment aside — and look at the facts.