By Mpho Tebele
Gaborone - Botswana has enlisted the service of an American public relations company to fight negative publicity following its decision to lift a hunting ban.
Since announcing that it was lifting the hunting ban on elephant hunting Botswana has been criticized by wildlife conservation organisation and individuals from the West.
According to Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, Felix Monggae, 42 West will draft a message that is suited to the Western audience where there is misconception about the country's decision to lift the hunting ban.
Monggae said initially the ministry had engaged local companies to do the public relations work but the negative publicity still persisted.
Therefore, he said, his ministry found it fit to engage the American company. Reports indicate that the company will be paid US$125 00 over the next two months for developing a communication plan that articulates Botswana's policy on elephant hunting that will be delivered to key US and Western audience.
For his part, the Minister of Tourism and Wildlife, Kitso Mokaila, said he would meet with the publicity firm soon to discuss the PR strategy and details on how the government will manage social media backlash internationally.
Meanwhile, President Mokgweetsi Masisi has explained that when his government announced on 23 May that Botswana would be lifting its ban on elephant hunting, many people around the world, especially in the US and the UK, reacted with shock and horror.
"How could we do such a thing? What could possibly justify the wholesale slaughter of such noble and intelligent creatures? Is it really true that we intend to turn these magnificent animals into dog food?" said Masisi.
He said of these questions, and many more like them that have been raised in recent days, were understandable, but misguided.
"The fact is, we in Botswana who live with and alongside the elephants yield to no one in our affection and concern for them, and we would never condone, no less promote, any of the terrible things those questions imply are in the offing. So let me explain what it is we are doing, and why," he said.
To begin with, Masisi said, while it was true that Botswana was lifting the ban on hunting, it was doing so in an extremely limited, tightly controlled fashion.
"We are not engaging in anything remotely like the culling of our elephant herds, and we are definitely not going to be using any elephants for pet food," he said.
He added that after extensive consultations with local communities, scientists, and leaders of neighbouring African states, the government decided on a course of action that embodies three guiding principles — the need to conserve Botswana’s natural resources, the need to facilitate human-wildlife co-existence, and the need to promote scientific management of the country’s elephants and other wildlife species.
Masisi further explained that the hunting ban was originally put in place in 2014, ostensibly as a temporary measure, in response to reports of declines in some animal populations.
"But Botswana’s elephant population wasn’t at risk. To the contrary, while the number of elephants in all of Africa has been declining, Botswana’s elephant population has been exploding — from 50,000 or so in 1991 to more than 130,000 today — far more than Botswana’s fragile environment, already stressed by drought and other effects of climate change, can safely accommodate," said Masisi.
He said with elephants moving out of their usual range in search of food and water, there has been a sharp increase in the number of dangerous human-elephant interactions, one result of which has been widespread destruction of crops, livestock, and property. In the north, marauding elephants have slashed maize yields by three-quarters.
Masisi noted that adding to the problem was a sense of deep unhappiness about the hunting ban among rural people who felt they weren’t consulted when the ban was first imposed. He said combined with the destructive impact of elephant overpopulation, this had transformed rural people’s traditional concern for wildlife into resentment, leading many to take up poaching.
"So this is the problem that lifting the ban seeks to address. It’s not that the ban caused the huge increase in our elephant population. It’s that it has allowed elephants to move with impunity into once-hazardous inhabited areas, thus increasing the number of human-elephant conflicts and, not incidentally, the environmental and economic challenges faced by rural people," said Masisi.
To this end, h said, Botswana will be encouraging community-based organizations and trusts to emphasize natural-resource conservation and tourism.
" Thus, we will be allocating more than half the elephant licenses we grant to local communities and instituting a series of strong measures designed to guarantee local people far more than just menial jobs, but rather a significant ownership stake in the tourism industry," explained Masisi.