When Botswana, home to about one-third of the world’s African elephants, lifted its hunting ban last month, leaders knew they were courting controversy. The government even hired a public-relations firm specializing in Hollywood celebrities to spin public opinion to its side.
For President Mokgweetsi Masisi, the need to end the ban was obvious. Rural farmers have borne the brunt of the near-tripling of the elephant population since 1991, to 130,000. As many as 50 Botswanans have been killed by elephants since the ban was implemented in 2014 and hundreds of reports of property damage have been filed. Plus which, Botswana in October is facing its most competitive election since independence in 1966 and Masisi needs rural support.
That didn’t stop the backlash. Masisi was pilloried by everyone from Ellen DeGeneres to his own predecessor. “Once again, elephants are being used as political scapegoats, but at a huge cost,” said Jason Bell, vice president–conservation and animal rescue at the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Cape Town.
Botswana hasn’t changed its position, but 42 West, whose star-studded client list includes Nicole Kidman, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep and Will Smith, pulled out of the contract, the Hollywood trade press reported. Allan Mayer, responsible for the account, didn’t respond to a message left at his office.
“It’s somewhat of a clash of cultures,” said Niki Rust, a research associate and wildlife-management expert at the University of Newcastle. “It’s easy for someone sitting behind their computer in the U.S. who’s never been to a local community in Botswana to get all upset about it.”
“A lot of people are being killed by these animals, even the environment itself is being eroded by elephants,” said Kosta Markus, a ruling-party lawmaker from the north near the elephant-rich Okavango Delta, who proposed the legislation ending the curbs. “Botswana is a democratic state that should look after its people. Otherwise there should be a zoo in Botswana and no people.”
Former President Ian Khama called the ban, promulgated while he was in office, “was a very necessary and responsible thing to do as a government.” Speaking in an interview, he said it was “very complementary to our conservation ethos. Why they’ve decided to change as far as I am concerned is more to do with the fact that’s it an election year than anything else.”
Masisi, for his part, posted a message on Twitter to justify the decision and to dismiss early proposals, made in countrywide hearings, that elephants be culled en masse and made into pet food. On June 2 he expressed horror that a young Botswanan had been killed by an elephant.