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The killing of Botswana’s biggest “tusker” elephant by a trophy hunter has ignited fresh debate on the most divisive conservation issue in Africa.
The large bull, which was carrying 200lb (91kg) of ivory, was shot this month by a foreign visitor who had paid about $50,000 for the days-long hunt on Botswana’s northern border with Namibia.
Botswana’s former president, Ian Khama, whose ban on trophy hunting was lifted by his successor in 2019, was among the first to condemn the killing.
“An elephant that tour operators have constantly tried to show to tourists. And now, he’s dead,” Khama, who stepped down in 2018, wrote on his Facebook page.
It is estimated that about 40 “hundred pounders” — elephants with at least one tusk weighing 100lb — still roam in Africa. A second bull with one tusk of 90lb, more than 7ft in length, was also killed in the most recent round of commercial hunts.
President Masisi justifies the auction of limited elephant hunting licences as a means to manage the country’s 130,000-strong elephant population and provide an income and meat for those whose properties are often damaged by wildlife. Despite strict international rules on the movement of ivory, the licence allows the unnamed hunter to ship his trophies home.
Elephant hunts raised $2.7 million last year for Botswana, the government said, and the licences for about 400 hunts have been sold for this year. There are restrictions only on the number of elephants to be killed and in which area, leaving professional hunters free to offer their wealthy clients the best trophies they can track.
Debbie Peake, a spokeswoman for the hunting industry, confirmed the killing of the bull, aged in its early fifties, from a single shot. The licence was one of five issued in the Kwando area, home to 20,000 elephants and where there is little income from wildlife tourism.
“The income and meat from the hunt will make a huge difference to a community,” Peake said, adding that an old bullet wound found on the bull suggested “the poachers had him in their sights”.
“If it had been killed by a poacher there would have been no benefit to the local community.”
Debates about how to manage animal populations in Africa are constant and intense, particularly on trophy hunting. Although elephant numbers are a fraction of what they once were, the animals’ proximity to growing human populations and increased conflict over limited resources has led Masisi and other leaders to say that culls are needed.
Peake denied that killing a bull with such heavy ivory interfered with the elephant gene pool. She said the animal was beyond its prime breeding years.
Studies have shown, however, that the loss of older male mentors for younger bulls in bachelor groups results in increased aggression and greater potential for conflict with humans.