Licences to hunt 70 elephants were auctioned off Friday in Botswana's capital, Gaborone, less than a year after the government there lifted a five-year-old hunting ban in hopes of reducing human-elephant conflict, after the conservation effort led to an increase in the pachyderm population.
The auction was not open to reporters, and organisers refused to speak about it when contacted. Participants put down deposits of about $26,000 each for a seat.
Wildlife hunting is a controversial topic in Africa, with critics arguing that the income governments get from licensing the killing of threatened species like elephants does little to expand wider conservation efforts. Botswana's former president, Ian Khama, was a renowned opponent of elephant hunting, and he instituted a ban that was at odds with all five of Botswana's neighbouring countries.
A spokeswoman for Botswana's wildlife department told Reuters that reducing clashes with elephants was part of the reason for issuing licences in particular parts of the country. "The seven areas chosen are those most impacted by human-wildlife conflict, especially involving elephants," said Alice Mmolawa.
His successor, Mokgweetsi Masisi, has turned elephant hunting into a populist issue. Elephant populations, he and his supporters claim, have grown too large and now regularly trample farms in search of food. His overturning the ban was widely cheered in the lead-up to Masisi's re election late last year.
Under Khama, Botswana was considered a trailblazer in conservation efforts, and Masisi's moves have soured many elephant lovers on visiting a country that supports hunting.
Each of the seven hunting "packages" will come with licences to kill 10 elephants and each was expected to sell at a price between $439,000 and $731,000. The hunting season officially begins in April.
About 130,000, a third of Africa's elephants, live in Botswana, mostly in the northern Chobe grasslands and Okavango swamp. Residents of those areas have complained of increasing human-elephant conflict, resulting in deaths and lost harvests. Their resentment is also directed toward conservationists - whom they see as mostly white and foreign, and whom they accuse of directing little of the profits of wildlife-driven tourism their way.
Masisi provoked animal rights activists last year by giving stools made of elephant feet to visiting heads of state and raising the possibility, if only in jest, of processing elephant meat as pet food.
Mike Chase, who runs Elephants Without Borders, a research charity that conducts the only elephant census in Botswana, disputed the government's assertion that human-elephant conflict was on the rise, and said the government's own data shows instances of it have been relatively constant.
Botswana's new policy stands in contrast to another home to a huge elephant population: Kenya. Hunting has been banned in Kenya for decades, and tourism revenue is drawn entirely from so-called "photographic safaris."
On Thursday, one of Kenya's most iconic elephants, Tim, died at age 50 of natural causes. Tim was well-known for raiding farms, but Kenya's wildlife service digitally tracked him and attempted to disrupt the raids rather than have farmers take matters into their own hands.
Speaking about Tim's death and Friday's auction in Botswana, one of Kenya's leading conservationists and elephant advocates, Paula Kahumbu, said she felt disgusted and enraged.
"In Kenya, elephants are massive, and calm. They still grow to towering majestic heights with tusks that swoop to the ground," she said. "What a contrast to Botswana where such Giants are reduced to auctioned commodities, fit only for blood sport and entertainment for bored rich people from another world."
Elephant hunting licences can costs tens of thousands of dollars each, representing a major source of income for state wildlife departments. Botswana's government has said it will only issue 400 licences per year at a maximum.