CAPE TOWN — Elephant hunting will resume in Botswana after a five-year prohibition, the government of that southern African nation said, despite intense lobbying by some conservation advocates to continue the ban.
The Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism announced the decision on Wednesday, saying that after “extensive consultations with all stakeholders,” the government had lifted the ban based on the “general consensus from those consulted.”
The policy has long been hotly debated, both within Botswana and in the broader international conservation community, as part of the effort to find the best way to balance the economic needs of the country’s people and demands of conservationists.
In recent months, Botswana has come under immense international pressure to preserve the ban, including multiple petitions and threats of tourism boycotts. The Humane Society International, an animal welfare group based in Washington, warned in March that “reinstating trophy hunting and starting elephant culls could hurt the country’s economy.”
The decision was met with outrage from some in the international community. Celebrities like the talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres and the actress Kristin Davis have waded into the debate and called for a boycott of tourism to Botswana unless the hunting ban was maintained.
Botswana, long seen as a conservation success story, has the largest elephant population in Africa, about one-third of the continent’s total.
Some believe the resumption of hunting is an attempt by President Mokgweetsi E.K. Masisi to win over rural voters before elections that are schedule for later this year.
The ban was imposed in 2014 by his predecessor, Ian Khama, an avid conservationist who won praise from many Western conservation groups for his tough stance against poaching, including a controversial “shoot to kill” policy to stop poachers. Mr. Khama also strongly opposed trophy hunting. But just months after Mr. Masisi took office in 2018, he created a committee to reassess the ban.
Mr. Khama’s brother, Tshekedi, was removed as Botswana’s environment minister in December after clashing with the new president over the hunting debate, a power struggle that came to light when the animal rights charity Elephants Without Borders claimed that a “poaching frenzy” was taking place in the north of the country in 2018.
Scientists and Botswana’s government later pushed back against the claims, accusing the charity of trying to manipulate conservation policy and preserve the Khama family’s influence.
The hunting ban has allowed Botswana’s elephant population to grow at a rate that is unsustainable and starved preservation efforts of much-needed revenue, according to opponents of the restrictions, a group that included not just the government but some conservationists.
The Environment Ministry pointed to the rising levels of human-elephant conflict as one of the reasons for the decision to end the hunting ban. Rural farmers struggle to keep elephants from eating their crops and trampling their fields, as the animals often wander into farms and villages, sometimes with deadly consequences.
The government also said that the Department of Wildlife and National Parks was ill-equipped to deal with animal control issues, leading to long response times in dealing with animals that posed a threat.
The ministry said it wanted to ensure the reinstatement of hunting would be done in an “orderly and ethical manner,” in accordance with the country’s conservation laws. It cited a basic tension between economic arguments about what benefits people, and the desire to protect the animals.
Advocates for limited trophy hunting say that it can generate income for communities, which could in turn support conservation efforts.
“By sacrificing 700 elephants per year we’re likely going to save more,” said Erik Verreynne, a wildlife veterinarian and consultant based in Gaborone, Botswana.
The government did not immediately provide details of its new policy, including how many elephants it would allow hunters to kill, and whether hunting would be allowed to resume immediately.
Botswana has some 27,000 elephants living outside wildlife management areas that often come into conflict with farmers, according to Mr. Verreynne.
“Rural communities endure the cost of human-wildlife conflict yet are largely excluded from the income generated by tourist industries,” he said. Lifting the ban on hunting, he added, could “be a tool to provide sustainability.”
In many rural areas, Mr. Verreynne said, there was “antagonism forming against Western influence and interference” that posed a far graver threat to conservation than hunting. But other conservationists were firmly opposed to the idea of reinstating elephant hunting.
In Africa, “an elephant is being killed by poachers on average every fifteen minutes,” said Don Pinnock, a conservation journalist and author of “The Last Elephants.” “Botswana is the last refuge for these elephants, and suddenly that refuge is going to start hunting them.”
It was a “tragedy,” Mr. Pinnock added, that elephants had become “collateral damage” in the buildup to elections. “The party is losing votes rapidly and wants to increase its votes in the rural areas by allowing the hunting of elephants,” he said.
There are about 415,000 African elephants in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund, spread over 37 nations. Their population is considered “vulnerable,” down from between three to five million in the last century, largely because of unregulated hunting.