Ivory poaching increased in Botswana during a time when the country was praised for protecting the world’s biggest African elephant population with some of the toughest measures to protect the animals.

Some of those measures have now been dropped. Botswana suspended a shoot-to-kill policy and removed military-grade weapons from its anti-poaching units in May of last year, weeks after President Mokgweetsi Masisi assumed office.

The release of a study by Botswana-based Elephants Without Borders published Thursday that says poaching is on the rise comes weeks after the government lifted a trophy hunting ban on wildlife because it says too many elephants roam in water-rich areas where people grow crops, posing a threat to farmers. While the measure has been praised by local residents, conservationists and safari operators are worried it’ll hurt Botswana’s reputation as a safe haven for the animals. Tourism accounts for a fifth of the nation’s economy.

Even though Botswana’s elephant population is stable, evidence collected from extensive aerial surveys in 2018 suggests that poaching on the scale of hundreds of elephants per year has been occurring in the north of the country since 2017 and possibly earlier, according to the study published in the journal Current Biology. Botswana has an elephant population of about 130,000.

The group found 156 elephants killed in 2018 for their tusks, and it estimates that at least 385 were poached from July 2017 through 2018. Between 2014 and 2018, the numbers of “fresh and recent carcasses” are estimated to have increased almost sixfold.

Elephants Without Borders focused the study on the north of the country, which has more than 90 percent of the population of the animals. The size of the population was found to have decreased in five poaching hotspots. Fresh or recent carcasses of which the skulls are chopped with an ax to remove the ivory tusks or that are covered with brush are usually clear indications of poaching, it said.

In Africa tens of thousands of elephants are killed illegally every year, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Populations in East Africa were decimated in the 1970s and 1980s.

The nonprofit conservation organization found itself at the center of controversy last year after the BBC cited it in a story about a spike in poaching in Botswana. While the organization had regularly briefed the government about its findings before the BBC report was published, the government immediately issued a strong denial, saying it was a “hoax,” and accusing the organization of trying to influence the hunting ban debate. Elephants Without Borders has denied the allegations.

Masisi has promoted a national debate to rally approval for the lifting of the hunting ban and joined other southern African nations to lobby the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to allow for the sale of ivory stockpiles.


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