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Botswana’s elephant population – What does the future hold?

The people of Botswana have long respected elephants: cave paintings dating from thousands of years ago commonly depict them. So it’s appropriate, perhaps, that modern Botswana has the largest population of elephants of any country in Africa.

At around 130,000 animals, it is home to nearly a third of all the elephants on the continent. Botswana is also a nation that has prided itself in protecting its wildlife as an asset – as much as 40% of Botswana is devoted to national parks and game reserves.

Elephant Rock Botswana
Elephant rock art in the Gubatsa Hills, created by nomadic people perhaps 2,000 years ago. (c) Dr Simon Wills

It means that Botswana has become a haven for wildlife of all kinds and it is the main reason why tourists visit. Many people go because they are guaranteed to see elephants. Not just one or two, but large herds, and it’s an impressive sight. A full-grown elephant has an imposing majesty and a unique beauty, whilst their young can be surprisingly playful, and to see an extended family of, say, twenty animals at a waterhole is an unforgettable experience.

Elephant Botswana My Good Planet
Elephants eat plants in season and grass is favoured, but when hungry they may turn their attentions elsewhere and this can be the basis for human conflict. (c) Dr Simon Wills

However, the large population has created some problems within Botswana. Elephants regularly wander into human settlements where they may do considerable damage. In small rural communities, elephants can destroy crops, damage fences and homes, and even kill people. In a national reserve, one guide explained that an elephant killed his grandfather three years ago.

Sometimes old people don’t see very well, particularly at night, and can walk into a herd without realising. Elephants get scared and can suddenly charge, especially if there’s a loud noise. We don’t recommend shooting a gun in the air to scare them away for this reason, but some people still do it.

Lions Drinking My Good Planet
These Savute Marsh lions killed a young elephant the day before this photo was taken. (c) Dr Simon Wills

If an elephant causes damage, local people are not allowed to kill it. However, the government will pay compensation to farmers or landowners who lose crops or property as a result of elephant actions. A similar scheme operates for livestock that is killed by lions.

But it’s not just rural villages that are affected. Elephants also enter towns where they can knock down walls and fences to reach fruits growing in people’s back yards, trampling gardens, damaging cars, and again deaths have been reported.

Elephant Botswana Trees My Good Planet
Elephants can damage the environment as well as human settlements – pushing over trees to gain access to leaves that would otherwise be out of reach. (c) Dr Simon Wills

A taxi driver in the town of Kasane explained that elephants are regularly seen there even in built up areas such as outside shopping complexes and near the airport. “They destroy everything” he says. “They pulled up my fence, threw it aside, and ate every orange on my tree.” But they can be unobtrusive at dawn and dusk, and surprisingly nimble. “Sometimes the elephants they move around an area and you see them late, at close range. You can’t run fast enough because an elephant can run and catch you.”

Bull Elephant Botswana My Good Planet
A mature bull elephant is a large and impressive animal, but one with no natural enemies other than humans. (c) Dr Simon Wills

A fit adult elephant has no natural enemies apart from disease, and can live for 70 years, so the question of how, or if, to control the population is an ongoing debate in Botswana. Lions will sometimes tackle an elephant, but it is usually a dying animal or a young one. The Savute Marsh pride has particularly become known for killing elephants in Botswana, but it is a risky strategy. Herds will defend themselves vigorously, and so lions prefer to target other species that are easier to kill and less likely to do them harm. By and large, the only predators that might threaten healthy adult elephants are humans. Yet it is illegal to kill elephants in Botswana, and this protection means that the population remains high, although it is probably not growing.

Elephant mud bath My Good Planet
A mud bath to cool down and to help remove parasites. (c) Dr Simon Wills

It is unclear whether the population needs to be limited in some way since the ideal sustainable elephant population size for Botswana is unknown. But the more immediate concern is how to prevent these animals encroaching into human settlements and causing damage.

The government and landowners have explored various options. Tall and robust metal fencing with a concrete foundation can resist elephant intrusion, as can electrified fencing. But both are beyond the budgets of impoverished villages and farmers, and besides the expense they are environmentally intrusive. Fencing could also disrupt the migration of elephants and other species, and reduce the mixing of genetic material that happens when animals wander and encounter unrelated individuals with whom they can mate. More importantly, whilst fencing may protect one local area it probably forces the problem of human-elephant conflict elsewhere.

Elephants are particularly inclined to wander when there is a shortage of water, so in some Botswana reserves such as Moremi, bore holes have been drilled to increase the water supply. New pools for bathing and drinking may encourage elephants to stay in these areas where water is plentiful and where their presence is welcome.

Many wildlife stakeholders on the ground in Botswana view culling of elephants or the reintroduction of hunting as a last resort. One wildlife reserve manager explained.

If elephants begin to associate the sight of humans with the frightening sound of a gunshot and with death then they, and other animals, will become wary of us and they will leave those areas or they will hide. What will this do for wildlife tourism? The only reason that Botswana has so many elephants is because we don’t shoot them.”

The tip of an elephant tusk that sheared off when its owner used it to scrape bark off a tree for food. (c) Dr Simon Wills

Killing elephants would represent a significant shift in attitude and would damage Botswana’s reputation. If the government did sanction killing, then it might also become less easy to explain why poaching is not acceptable at a time when it’s believed to be escalating. And what would Botswana do with the ivory, and even the meat of the animals that are culled or hunted? To sell the ivory would encourage the ivory trade, and reports that elephant meat might be canned as pet food are bizarrely at odds with Botswana’s desire to foster wildlife tourism.

However, rather ominously, in March 2019 the President of Botswana stated that his country had never had an elephant hunting ban, only “a suspension extended every year” and called in an expert to tell the media that Botswana had ten or twenty times too many elephants.

What does the future hold for Botswana’s elephants? (c) Dr Simon Wills

As with many situations in which there is tension between humans and wildlife, this situation is complex and has many perspectives – human, animal, commercial, environmental, and political

Dr. Simon Wills
Dr. Simon Wills

Dr Simon Wills is a wildlife writer and photographer, and author of the book ‘A History of Birds’ (White Owl, 2017) Twitter: @WriterWillsy