The re-opening of safari hunting in Botswana just may be the best news I’ve heard in my 40-odd years as an African hunter, a lover of Africa and her wildlife…and a journalist who makes his living writing about this stuff. As SCI has officially, I express my personal thanks to Botswana’s President Mokgweetsi Masisi; and his Minister of Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation, and Tourism, the Honorable Onkokame Kitso Mokallo.
In these “interesting” times we live in, this was not an easy nor simple decision. But Botswana’s leaders are certain it is the right decision for Botswana’s people and her wildlife. Obviously, it is the preferred decision for we of the hunting community, but I think it is also the right decision for all genuine conservationists. Without question the worst news I’ve heard in my career—just a few days after my first safari there—was the “ban” of hunting in Kenya. Although Kenya has some of the most beautiful Parks on the African continent, the hunting ban wasn’t just bad news; it was the death knell for Kenya’s wildlife outside of her Parks.
Words matter! It is important to understand that Botswana never “closed” or “banned” hunting; she “suspended” safari hunting on government land. Nonresident hunting on private land remained available, and Botswana remains one of few nations on Planet Earth where hunting is a guaranteed constitutional right for Botswana citizens. However, re-starting is often more difficult than suspending or stopping.
Times have changed. I was a youngster in the 1960s, when then-Bechuanaland first opened…but I knew hunters who were there at the beginning. It was a paradise for the great cats and buffalo, plus key antelope species such as sable, kudu, and gemsbok; and rarities like lechwe and sitatunga. Harry Selby, one of Botswana’s pioneer outfitters, told me that, in the early years, “We didn’t worry much about elephants; most of my clients had better from East Africa.” He went on to say, “We could certainly find elephants if the client desired, but in the early days we were thrilled if we could find a 40-pounder!”
Fast-forward 20 years. I hunted in Botswana three times in the 1980s, twice in the Okavango and once in the Chobe region. In those days Botswana was the Land of Buffaloes! In the course of a normal hunting day we would see two or three herds, so seeking endlessly for fresh tracks was rarely necessary.
In the 1980s, plains game was equally important. Back then, Botswana competed with Zimbabwe in the important “buffalo and plains game” market. Premier antelopes like kudu, sable, and red lechwe were plentiful, and common game such as impala, blue wildebeest, warthog, and zebra were everywhere! I shot my first leopard in Botswana in 1985; the great cats were plentiful, but rarely seen without specific hunting.
Fast forward another 20 years, and the game had changed! I hunted Botswana twice in the 2000s, before the recent suspension. Lion hunting was suspended around 2002. A decade later lions were much more visible and, in my layman’s mind, obviously more common than they had been in the 1980s…but buffaloes and large antelopes were much less visible. Without question all prey species have suffered from an unfettered lion population, perhaps buffalo and long-nurtured premier antelopes such as sable and roan most of all. However, I don’t blame the lions altogether.
Aside from the simple fact that Botswana is lifting the suspension, the best news is yet to come! Minister Mokalla has stated that “reinstating hunting in Botswana’s government and community areas is more about incentivizing people to help manage wildlife than about controlling wildlife. Hunting is a management tool that will compensate communities for living with wildlife and help move wildlife out of areas where they conflict with people.” After the five-year suspension hunting in Botswana has a fresh, new start. According to Minister Mokalla, existing wildlife law will be implemented and all species listed as huntable under Botswana law will be huntable again…including lion and leopard!
In the Sixties and Seventies Botswana was a premier “general bag” safari destination. In the Eighties and early Nineties, Botswana was a prime “buffalo and plains game” destination. Reorganization will take some time. I’m in hopes I can hunt buffalo there just one more time!–Craig Boddington