Botsawana is threatening to send 20,000 elephants to Germany

Botswana is fed up.

The country is home to almost a third of the world’s savanna elephants, a population that has tripled since 1984, and Botswana is often hailed as a conservation success.

But European nations, most recently Germany, are attacking a lynchpin of Botswana’s elephant management strategy: trophy hunting.

The German environment ministry is pushing to ban the import of elephant trophies, which it began discussing in 2022, across the E.U. Last week, they delivered their plan to counterparts in Botswana, a spokesperson told NBC News.

Germany is one of the E.U.’s largest importers of hunting trophies. Animal trophies can be the entire hunted animal, or any part of it, like the head, skin, or tusk, kept as a souvenir.

The potential ban, which would disincentivize European trophy hunters from going to Botswana, sparked the country’s ire. In response, President Mokgweetsi Masisi said Tuesday that he will send 20,000 elephants to Germany from Botswana’s population of 130,000.

“It’s not a joke,” Masisi told the German tabloid newspaper Bild.

But a spokesperson for Germany’s Federal Agency for Nature Conservation told NBC News, “There is currently no formal request of a transfer of 20,000 elephants from Botswana to Germany.”

“It is very easy to sit in Berlin and have an opinion about our affairs in Botswana,” Masisi said. “We are paying the price for preserving these animals for the world.”

In Botswana, elephants kill livestock and trample crops and people.

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Mokgweetsi Eric Masisi, president of Botswana.Dominika Zarzycka / NurPhoto via Getty Images file

While trophy hunting can seem like a visceral representation of how humans endanger animals, the relationship is complex. Trophy hunting is not “threatening the survival of species as a whole,” Dilys Roe, chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group, told NBC News. The IUCN is an international conservation organization that assesses whether species are threatened or endangered, and analyzes the measures needed to safeguard the natural world.

In fact, Roe said, trophy hunting could aid in conservation by “giving value to wildlife and therefore increasing the tolerance of local people to put up with dangerous wild animals on their doorsteps.”

Trophy hunting can also bring in much-needed revenue for conservation efforts and prevent the wildlife from venturing into nearby farms and villages as hunting scares them away. Banning it could hurt the local community, who rely on the tourism revenue.

However, animal rights groups like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), say the practice is a “cruel and bloodthirsty business,” and Botswana should instead focus on promoting ecotourism.

PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk called the Botswanian offer “a shameless publicity stunt,” telling NBC News in a statement that the “public has no desire to be complicit in the recreational slaughter of elephants and other magnificent species.”

Germany is considering joining neighboring Belgium, which voted in late January to ban imports from a range of threatened animals, including elephants. 

“You should live with the animals the way you try to tell us to,” the Botswanan president said, referring to the German officials who are spearheading the push.

Earlier this month, Britain’s parliament also approved a ban on the import of hunting trophies, prompting Botswana officials to threaten to flood London’s Hyde Park with 10,000 elephants. 

This is not the first time outside influence has pushed Botswana’s elephant conservation policies. Under pressure from animal groups, Botswana banned trophy hunting in 2014.

“Elephants are intelligent creatures and so steered clear of the hunting areas as far as possible until hunting was banned,” Roe said. 

But once the ban was in place, she said, the elephants “not only re-inhabited those areas but also ventured out onto the adjacent farmland with huge damage to crops and livelihoods.”

In 2019, Botswana reversed the ban as locals protested the loss of income, damaged crops and elephants killing livestock. 

Masisi said Botswana already provides 40% of its land for wildlife and people are being trampled to death by elephants. He had earlier said the elephant population had almost tripled since 1984.

“We are in a biodiversity crisis, and we certainly need better solutions,” Adam Hart, professor of Science Communication at the University of Gloucestershire in the U.K. and co-author of the book “Trophy Hunting.”

“We have nothing that has been shown to work at the scale at which hunting tourism currently works,” he said, adding, “We have to follow the evidence. Botswana leads the way in terms of conservation success.” 

Experts say hunting tourism brings in much more money for conservation, which in some cases, could be the only viable source of income.

“We currently have a huge funding gap for conservation — taking away one of the existing sources of funding can only make matters worse, not better,” said Roe. 

Hart said it would be “grossly irresponsible at best” to remove a proven conservation method with no proper alternative. “The bigger picture seems to be driven by a dislike or disgust of trophy hunting,” he said.

Neither Germany nor the U.K. have banned trophy hunting domestically.

While experts say the suggestion to send thousands of elephants is probably rhetoric, the point made is a real one.

“We in London, Berlin, New York or elsewhere have no idea what it’s like to live alongside dangerous animals and simply be expected to put up with them,” Roe said, adding ” We wouldn’t want elephants in our back gardens.”

While it is unclear how tens of thousands of elephants could clear U.K. or E.U. borders, President Masisi is digging in this heels: “We won’t take no for an answer.”