But a new academic paper shows that this argument doesn't hold.
The researchers compared the results of two aerial surveys in northern Botswana. The first was conducted in 2014, the second in 2018. Both were conducted during the dry season. This allowed for easy detection of changes over time.
A 94,000km2 area was studied and the elephant population estimated at 122,700 in 2018. This was roughly similar to the 2014 numbers.
But comparing results from the 2014 and 2018 aerial surveys, the scientists found that the numbers of elephant carcasses have increased, especially for newer carcasses dead for less than roughly 1 year. Populations can remain stable despite increased carcass counts because of new births and immigration from other range states.
Were these changes poaching-induced? The survey shows that they were. Carcasses suspected of poaching were physically checked. Evidence of skull hacking and attempts to cover tracks were clear. The elephants were killed in clusters, suggesting poaching hot-spots.
The paper has been published amid a fierce debate about the future of Botswana's preferred conservation model. Restoring trophy hunting rights is likely to amplify the poaching problem rather than solve it.
Trophy hunting and poaching both target large bulls with big tusks. Hunting may therefore create an additive effect to poaching, leading to exponential decline of the rare genetics carried by "big tuskers".
Elephant population health and its future prospects are partially determined by carcass ratios. This is the number of carcasses divided by the sum of carcasses plus live elephants. If the carcass ratio is high, it might indicate a population in decline. "Fresh" carcasses indicate death within a year of the survey, whereas old carcasses indicate death more than a year prior. "Very old" carcasses belong to elephants who died more than ten years before the survey.
The estimated overall carcass count increased by 21% between 2014 and 2018. The combined fresh and recent number increased by 593% over the same time.
A number of factors could affect carcass ratios. These include drought, disease, poaching and excessive hunting.
One of the signs that poaching is responsible for animal deaths is if they occur in clusters. The survey identified clustering effects in the 2018 survey that were not present in the 2014 survey.
The density of fresh and recent carcasses in observed hot-spots was 0.04/km2 but only 0.001/km2 in surrounding areas (buffer zones). Population decline in the hot-spots was roughly 16% while the increase in the surrounding areas was 10%.
Cause of death
To verify the cause of death for carcasses suspected of poaching, the researchers used a helicopter to visit carcasses on the ground or photograph them from low altitude. Poachers hack skulls for tusk removal and move branches over the carcass to try and cover their tracks.
Poaching was confirmed for 94 fresh or recent carcasses. For older carcasses, 62 of the 76 checked were verified as poached. That's 156 illegally killed elephants directly observed within a few months, and a total carcass ratio of 8%, which may indicate a population at risk of decline. As the scientists note:
In Zimbabwe's Sebungwe ecosystem, numbers of carcasses increased in the early 2000s while elephant populations generally remained stable. This stable period was followed by a population collapse, with 2014 numbers down by 76% from the early 2000s.
In addition, their evidence showed that the vast majority of poached carcasses were older bulls. This is because they carry bigger tusks with more ivory. Poachers preferentially select these bulls, especially in previously unexploited populations. These are also the bulls that photographers pay to see.
What does this tell us about the future of elephants in Botswana?
Botswana's decision to reintroduce trophy hunting means that it's now possible to pay around $40,000 to kill a "tusker" with ivory weighing between 40 to 70 pounds. Botswana's annual quota has been set at 400 bulls per annum, for bulls older than 35. Trophy bulls are normally selected from the oldest 10% of the male population.
This is unsustainable.
Only a small proportion of the 400 are likely to have large tusk genetics. Botswana's independent bull elephant population is currently estimated at between 18,474 and 22,816. If 4,000 of these were trophy bulls (unlikely), removing 400 a year (plus poaching of at least 200), would mean that big tuskers would be shot out within seven years.
Older males are critical for maintaining cogent elephant sociology. They suppress the musth cycles of younger bulls and deter delinquent behaviour. Consequently, hunting might lead to more human and elephant conflict.
Bulls also breed most successfully beyond the age of 40. Their absence will therefore negatively affect breeding cycles. Killing them off comes with extensive opportunity costs for Botswana. Photographic tourists - paying up to $2,000 per person per night - may now choose other destinations to see big tuskers.
Botswana's Minister of Tourism, Kitso Mokaila, has stated that "photographic tourism is a model that does not work for Batswana". Mokaila also intimated that leases would not be renewed, cowing the industry into silence.
While the photographic safari industry could certainly benefit communities more, this does not amount to an argument in favour of hunting. Self-drive tourism options, for instance, have not been tried in the Central Conservation Areas, which would bring counter-poaching presence and revenue to those communities.
With declining diamond rents and few economic alternatives to tourism, Botswana may need to rethink its position on hunting and must take action now to stop poaching in its tracks. This requires that local communities become drivers of conservation, true participants rather than 'consulted' stakeholders. And appropriate land-use planning must be followed, especially in conservation areas that are not conducive to photographic tourism.