The Most Dangerous Game: How Botswana’s proposed hunting ban will affect the nation’s economy and culture

By Danny Kemp

Glen Geeves sat calmly at a picnic table near the entrance to the Mokolodi Nature Reserve, located just south of Gaborone, Botswana, unfazed by the heat. “Less than two years ago we could have sold them all alive to private landowners within Botswana,” Geeves said. “Now no one will buy them.” Geeves, the conservation manager of the 30 square kilometer park, was explaining the mass killing of impala that will take place the next week in the reserve. Due to overstocking, certain game are typically captured and sold to help populate Botswana’s seemingly endless public lands. This year, however, at least 100 impala will be killed on the spot.

When President Ian Khama announced a nationwide hunting ban in November 2012, Geeves knew it would cause problems for Mokolodi. The ban, passed in response to surveys by environmental NGOs that pointed to sharp decreases in wildlife, led to a plummeting demand for impala in the following months. The ensuing overstock forced the nature reserve to begin a culling process in late May.

The ban, which does not include hunting on the country’s small number of private game ranches, will go into effect on January 1, 2014.

Rhinoceros in the Mokolodi Nature Reserve in southern Botswana (Osborn/TYG).
Rhinoceros in the Mokolodi Nature Reserve in southern Botswana (Osborn/TYG).

The decision has already caused significant controversy in the country for its potentially negative impact on the local economy. Tourism accounts for 12% of Botswana’s GDP, with much of that revenue coming from hunting. Weeklong hunting safaris cost an average of $10,000, more than three times the cost of a similar photo safari. A ten-day leopard-hunting safari can contribute up to $40,000 to the local economy. While the Botswana government hopes that photo-tourism will be able to fill the economic void that may be caused by the ban, many are less optimistic.

“Hunters spend in excess of $100,000 per trip. Photographers will not spend that kind of money,” Melville Saayman, professor and tourism researcher at South Africa’s North-West University said. “The government wants to attract big spenders. This is in complete contrast with what they want to achieve.”

But while the Botswana government hopes to retain high numbers of wealthy tourists, they are also looking to expand the middle class tourism market – a necessary step toward diversifying the industry. “We’re helping the communities set up campsites for tourists,” said Dovas Sualys, Regional Environment, Science, Technology, and Health Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Gaborone. “There is a big trade in game drives and camping.”

Hunting has been essential to the country’s rural population, but Saulys hopes government programs will help them adjust to life after the ban.

The government’s Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) program is dedicated to training formerly hunting-dependent communities to put their wildlife resources to different uses, such as attracting photo-tourists. Considering Botswana’s large size and highly rural population, the CBNRM program is taking on a very ambitious project that, if successful, would increase Botswana’s appeal to middle class tourists, while benefiting rural communities.

Gazelles in the Mokolodi Nature Reserve in southern Botswana (Osborn/TYG).
Gazelles in the Mokolodi Nature Reserve in southern Botswana (Osborn/TYG).

Government programs like CBNRM are a good step in easing the transition to hunting-free tourism, but doubts remain regarding the government’s preparedness, especially regarding poaching. There is a real danger that local economic slumps could lead to poaching by indigenous populations for food and illicit trade. Both Geeves and Saayman expect poaching to increase in the coming years. “Kenya implemented similar legislation a few years ago and poaching began to increase,” Saayman said. “I think the ban will be lifted in a few years. The pressure on the government will be too big and they’ll have to act.”

Despite all of the controversy, President Khama’s commitment toward conservation remains intact. He recently banned foreigners from fishing outside of licensed fishing lodges. His personal involvement with Wilderness Safaris, a luxury safari organization that promotes wildlife conservation, has also received attention in the local press. His decision to use Botswana’s military to fight poachers further establishes him as a president who will work aggressively for conservation. In his speech announcing the hunting ban, Khama said that trophy hunting was “no longer compatible with our commitment to preserve local fauna as a national treasure, which should be treated as such.”

The hunting ban will help position Botswana as a promoter of eco-friendly tourism, but the full costs of doing so are not yet clear. Even with more than a year to prepare for its implementation, the ban will likely come as a cultural and economic shock to the country. With little word from the government on how they will deal with many of the ban’s potentially negative effects, controversy will continue to grow. Hunting in Botswana will likely be reinstated in the years to come.

Daniel Kemp ’15 is a Film Studies major in Morse College.  Contact him at

A giraffe stands in the Mokolodi Nature Reserve in southern Botswana (Osborn/TYG).
A giraffe stands in the Mokolodi Nature Reserve in southern Botswana (Osborn/TYG).