Botswana's elephant dilemma

The country has 1.3 lakh elephants. Not easy for humans

In 218 BCE, Hannibal, the great Carthaginian general, made his audacious assault on Rome from the north, crossing the Alps with his army of 30,000 men, 15,000 cavalry and most famously, 37 elephants. In the ensuing two millennia, Hannibal would have gone the way of most history, gradually reducing to a footnote. But largely because of the image of his elephants in snowbound Alps, he has reached metaphoric status, immortalised in film and legend.

If a mere 37 elephants could so impress the European psyche, imagine the result if Botswana’s President, Mokgweetsi Masisi, were to deliver on his threat—or promise—of sending 20,000 elephants to Germany and, as he added for good measure, he “won’t take no for an answer.” The thought conjures up delicious images: thousands of pachyderms marching down the Unter den Linden to the tune of Baby Elephant Walk, or shooting the breeze in Potsdamer Platz or heading down to Munich’s beer halls to quench their summer thirst.

Elephants have been gifted by states before. During World War II for instance, zoo animals were ruthlessly slaughtered in Europe, Japan and even India for fear that bombardment may free dangerous predators to roam the streets; the two Indian elephants in Tokyo zoo died of forced starvation. When peace returned, hundreds of Japanese children wrote letters to prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru expressing anguish at the loss of the elephants. Nehru promptly sent an elephant named after his own daughter, Indira, as a peace ambassador to Japan. A similar gift, this time named Shanti, reached Berlin in 1951.

Imaging: Deni Lal/Ai Imaging: Deni Lal/Ai

But 20,000? Costly to transport, for one. Even in the case of Indira, the MEA had to explore the funding issue with princely states. But regardless of whether it is sent CIF or FOB, this jumbo gift is likely to remain a rhetorical flourish; the Germans will no doubt put on a thick skin and ignore the offer, given its acrimonious origins. President Masisi’s threat came after Germany, presently one of the largest importers of hunting trophies in the EU, considered a proposal, backed by animal protection groups, to ban such imports. Britain had toyed with a similar proposal earlier only to be told that Botswana would send 10,000 elephants to London’s Hyde Park; the thought of this bunch performing their morning ablutions in the Serpentine lake in the park must have quickly dampened the ardour of British conservationists.

Botswana feels that western countries and conservation purists fail to appreciate the problems of living with its 1.3 lakh elephants, more than twice the ecologically sustainable number. Big-game hunting, with proper permits, is a major revenue earner for local communities—a 12-day hunting package can bring in as much as $50,000—and a zero-threat to the species; indeed, it is argued, it enables better conservation by strengthening local capacity to better manage man-animal conflict and discourages indiscriminate poaching. Uncontrolled elephant population, which doubled during an earlier five-year hunting ban, leads to widespread destruction of property, crops and lives and hampers development in a poor country; keen to keep numbers to sustainable levels, Botswana has already sent 8,000 elephants to neighbouring Angola and offered another 500 to Mozambique.

Even if rhetorical, Botswana’s dramatic offer underlines that wildlife preservation is not always a zero-sum game. When it comes to living with elephants, there is a lot of grey; sustainable and pragmatic conservation rather than moral high-mindedness may be the way to go. As the young musician Dhruv Visvanath says in his well-known song Botswana, “….what you call pain I call my home.” There’s a point to ponder.

The writer is former high commissioner to the UK and former ambassador to the US.