A subset of well-heeled tourists has long been willing to spend significant amounts of money for the chance to shoot big game in southern Africa. But with Botswana recently announcing plans to ban hunting, some of the continent’s most desirable big game habitat will soon be closed to hunters. Now, the challenge is to replace hunting revenue with other types of tourist spending.
Botswana’s hunting industry was long happy to fly under the radar. The high cost of booking a hunting safari in the southern African country helped ensure that tourists who hunted in Botswana’s savannah remained an exclusive bunch. Most advertising was by word of mouth, and luxurious accommodations and incomparable hunting habitat ensured people would pay a premium to hunt big game.
Government fees added to the costs of a Botswana hunting safari. Permits to shoot a lion or an elephant cost about $2,500. Prices rise exponentially when room, board and the cost of local guides are included. A 10-day leopard-hunting safari with an outfitter can cost more than $40,000. The prices may be prohibitive for all but the most affluent hunters, but the money adds up for Botswana. According to a 2007 study led by Peter Lindsey, a research fellow at the University of Pretoria who specializes in African wildlife conservation, hunting generates more than $20 million annually and sustains 1,000 rural jobs for the land-locked country.
But two recent events helped thrust Botswana’s hunting scene into an unwelcome spotlight. In April, Spanish King Juan Carlos made headlines when he was forced to apologize for participating in a high-priced hunt in Botswana while his country remained mired in a recession. The news came after a series of aerial surveys by a non-profit organization called Elephants Without Borders showed a precipitous decline in many types of wildlife in the country. In reaction to the surveys, the government in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital city, decided in November to ban hunting on all government concessions starting in January 2014.
In a statement officially announcing the ban, Botswana’s Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism said, “If left unchecked, this (wildlife) decline poses a genuine threat to both the conservation of our natural heritage and the long-term health of the local tourist industry, which currently ranks second to diamonds in terms of its revenue earnings.”
The move is designed to make wildlife tourism more sustainable, and the government believes lost hunting revenues can be replaced with earnings from photographic safaris.
Botswana, already known as a pricey destination for photographic safaris, is well positioned to attract affluent eco-tourists. But with the price of a week-long photo safari averaging $3,100 per week, the country will have to attract many more tourists to replace hunters, who spend almost $10,000 per week on average. For that reason, some doubt photographers can really make up for the cash trophy hunters bring to the country.
“Your international hunter spends an enormous amount of money compared to your photographic tourist,” Melville Saayman, professor and tourism researcher at South Africa’s North-West University, told The Financialist. “I don’t think eco-tourism initiatives can fill the void left by hunting. It is about the amount spent.”
There are also fears that, rather than preserving wildlife, the hunting ban could actually encourage poaching by local people who can no longer earn a living from the hunting business. Joseph Mbaiwa, acting director of the Okavango Research Centre (ORC), which oversees the conservation of the Okavango Delta, one of the world’s largest and best preserved inland river deltas, told Botswana’s Sunday Standard that, “if the ban is imposed…communities will not be able to carry out some activities for their own benefit. In my view, the incidents of poaching are likely to go up since… the core business that brought revenue for their benefit, has been since cut.”
But others believe the hunting ban is the first step in creating positive buzz for Botswana and branding the country as a haven for eco-tourism.
“I think the hunting ban will do Botswana a lot of good in the eyes of the world and therefore, potential tourists,” Kate Evans, elephant researcher and the founder/director of the Botswana-based non-profit organization, Elephants for Africa, told The Financialist.
Botswana’s current challenge, then, is to attract tourists who are willing to pay for opportunities to shoot with a camera, rather than a rifle. Only time will tell whether the goodwill generated by the hunting ban will translate into more eco-tourism.
Safari: The Five Best Ways to See African Wildlife
For much of the last century, the word safari was synonymous with trophy hunting, and hunters preferred to see big game through the scope of a high-powered rifle. With Botswana and Zambia recently joining Kenya in banning trophy hunting, however, the days of the hunting safari may be numbered. Fortunately, those looking for an African adventure still have many options for viewing African game that don’t involve shooting animals with anything more deadly than a camera.