Botswana's government lifted a 5-year ban on elephant hunting on Thursday, spurring criticism from wildlife conservation groups who see the move as a step backward in protecting the population.
The reversal has tipped off international controversy over wildlife protection, economic stimulus and ivory trading.
Botswana has the highest elephant population of any African country, with an estimated population between 120,000 and 130,000, according to Mark Jones, a veterinarian and the head of policy at the Born Free Foundation, a global wildlife conservation charity.
Jones said trophy hunting is unlikely to have any real impact on the population's numbers — but is likely to harm the animals themselves.
"Elephants are highly intelligent creatures and will move away from areas where they are in danger," Jones said. "Most of the countries surrounding Botswana allow [hunting] and many elephants have moved into Botswana because of the poaching in neighboring countries."
Safari Club International, a U.S.-based hunting group praised the government's stance, claiming that lifting the ban would be good for wildlife.
"We thank the President of Botswana and all others involved in Botswana for their forward thinking and having the courage to bypass doing what is easy in order to do what is right for the benefit of the wildlife of Botswana and the people of Botswana," said SCI President Paul Babaz in a statement. "They need to be able to manage their own wildlife so that there will be more wildlife in wild places in harmony with the people for generations to come."
The Botswana government claims there has been an increase in human-elephant conflict — a consequence of the growing elephant population — and elephant-related damage to livestock.
In Botswana elephants are not confined to fenced reserves. That allows them to migrate freely over large distances throughout the country, and even cross over into neighboring countries.
"We are concerned that hunting causes extreme stress to elephants, which are intelligent, thinking, communicating animals. The elephants begin to associate humans with violence and they retaliate — hence the large number of human fatalities," Paula Kahumbu, CEO of nonprofit Wildlife Direct, said in a statement.
Still, experts maintain hunting is not a credible method of population control or an effective means to combat higher rates of violence and damage.
There are more humane and legitimate ways to litigate the size of the population and prevent them from crossing into crop-fields. The use of chili or the introduction of beehives have proved to be effective in doing so, Jones said.
Officials also say the ban has caused local communities to suffer as a result of the loss of income from trophy hunters.
"Most of the money generated by hunting is captured by the state and by the hunting companies. Communities make very little gain – studies have shown that less than 2% of the funds generated by hunting reach communities," Kahumbu said.
Moreover, Botswana is one of four African states proposing the decriminalization of commercial trade of ivory, which is outlawed under international law. "Poaching for ivory is the biggest single threat to elephants," Jones said.
The U.S., U.K. and China have all outlawed ivory trade.
There were reports of a number of elephants being poached just last year, according to Jones, but allowing the sale of ivory to resume in some countries would stimulate hunting of the animals and put them in grave danger.