Responsible tourism in Botswana

Botswana is often praised for being one of Africa’s safest, most stable countries, with reasonable standards of living for most of its citizens and democratic elections since it became independent just over 50 years ago. Additionally, almost a fifth of its landmass is covered by wildlife reserves, meaning it has an impressive conservation record and one of the largest tracts of remaining wilderness in Africa – which is responsible for its impressive wildlife migrations.

As always, the preservation of this wilderness is highly dependent on local people being able to generate sustainable incomes; well-managed tourism is one of the key solutions here. Tourism in Botswana also plays a huge part in the preservation of local culture, so follow our tips below for a happier, more responsible holiday.

People & Culture in Botswana

The San

The San – also known as the Bushmen or Basarwa in Botswana – are the original inhabitants of southern Africa, and their detailed knowledge of the desert and its flora and flora remains unrivalled. In 1961, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) was created as a protected area for around 5,000 San, where they could continue to hunt, forage and live in the traditional way, without intrusion.

However, since the 1990s, a series of government clearances have removed virtually all the San from the CKGR, and placed them in government camps. In 2006 the San won a court case for their right to return to the reserve, but the government sealed a water borehole and arrested and beat those found hunting to feed their families, effectively making it impossible for them to survive on their ancestral lands.
The San have been evicted from the reserve that was created for them, their water borehole was sealed, and they were sent to government camps.
Reasons given for the evictions are varied – originally it was said to be for the San’s own benefit, so they could have access to schooling and be “developed”. Others claimed that it is impossible for humans to live alongside wildlife, and as the CKGR is a game reserve, the San should leave – despite them having lived alongside wildlife in the Kalahari for millennia. There is also the controversial issue of diamonds having been discovered in the reserve; a large mine is now being developed right beside a San community.

As a result of the sealed borehole and the lack of access to food or income, the San within the reserve are dying, and those living in government camps are rapidly losing the skills and knowledge that have been accumulated over hundreds of generations in the desert. The San of the Kalahari are the world’s last remaining hunting Bushmen, and the loss of their culture would be absolutely tragic.
Survival International campaigns for tribal rights across the globe. Their San campaign representative speaks about San tourism in Botswana: "Ironically, on its official tourism website, the government uses images of Bushmen wearing animal skins and hunting, and at the same time it’s not allowing them to do that. The only Bushmen that tourists can visit are the ones outside the CKGR, who are of course not living day to day in the way they’re showing tourists that they are because the government doesn’t allow it. None of the Bushmen that actually live in the CKGR are involved in tourism because they’ve been excluded by the government from anything that will allow them to have their own economy in any way. It’s important that tourists are aware of this, and to know that any tour operator claiming that a San bushwalk shows how they live today and how well they’ve adapted is completely false."
What you can do:
Make sure your tour operator has experiences the San tour they are selling – it’s the only way they will know how ethical the tour is. Ask them if the tour is genuine, is it sensitive to the San culture, and how do the San benefit from the tourists? There has to be a benefit for the tourists and the people involved, otherwise it’s exploitation.

Many San complain about the way they are treated by tourists and guides – they walk into San villages and homes uninvited, don’t greet them, and take photographs without permission. Be sure to treat them as respectfully as you would any other host, and refuse to participate in any tour where the San are visibly uncomfortable with your presence.

Read more:
Survival International’s Bushmen campaign Cultural Survival’s report on the impacts of tourism on the San Show your support for the San: Write a letter to the Botswana government, or donate to Survival International

Tourism & communities

Despite the serious issues with the San, the Botswana Tourism Organisation generally has a good relationship with community-based organisations and tribal authorities. Most land used for tourism in Botswana is leased – either in a national park or reserve, or from local communities. Safari companies bid for the lease – known as a concession – and must demonstrate the financial and environmental benefits they will provide during their lease.

This results in annual royalties for the communities, which are generally reinvested into community and conservation initiatives, as well as empowering local people by giving them a say in the management and use of their land. Laws also ensure that only Batswana staff can be hired by these companies, keeping as much tourism revenue as possible within the country.

What you can do:
While these laws mean that you holiday is already supporting the local economy, there are extra little ways you can contribute, such as tipping staff.
Judith Wrennall travelled to Botswana with Responsible Travel. Here are her tips for supporting local people on a camping safari: "The holiday can benefit locals but you have to eat locally, shop locally and do little things like taking your washing to the local ladies (sometimes their only income is doing tourists washing, so don’t be ashamed to hand your smalls over!). There’s loads of food stored on the truck, so it can be tempting to just eat group meals, but the local food is wicked and definitely worth a try."

Wildlife & environment in Botswana

A new hunting ban

Historically, trophy hunting was permitted in Botswana’s private and state reserves, with hunters shooting the most impressive big game including elephants, buffalo and lions. In 2014, trophy hunting was banned, which has had impacts on local communities, conservation and tourism. In May 2019, the ban on hunting elephants was lifted, with the Botswana government citing growing conflicts between humans and animals, which at times destroy crops.

As the owners of the land and lodges which were leased out as hunting concessions, local communities have, in the past, benefitted greatly from hunting. A single elephant could generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue, which encouraged them to keep the land as pristine as possible, without introducing cattle, building fences or exploiting natural resources. The original hunting ban caused concern, therefore, that communities would be disincentivised from protecting these habitats and conserving wildlife.

Happily, this has not happened. Since the ban’s implementation, wildlife numbers have increased and tourism is thriving. As most of the tourist lodges work in partnership with local communities, this feeds money back into local hands. Tourism brought in around £160 million in 2017 which is more than trophy hunters spend across the whole of southern Africa. [1]

The 2014 ban has affected some local people negatively. Off the beaten track villages that were once popular with hunters are suffering as the major reserves and parks scoop up most of the tourism revenue. The original ban also provoked criticism from some African governments, including Zambia, which criticised Botswana for pandering to Western animal rights activists. Government officials and even conservationists in other African countries continue to encourage trophy hunting as a source of income for locals and simply as a traditional right. [2]

1. BBC News
2. NY Times
Dereck and Beverly Joubert are National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence. Originally from Botswana, they have spent almost 30 years making films about African wildlife, and have established the Big Cats Initiative as an emergency response to the rapid decline of big cat species. They share their views on the future of tourism and conservation in Botswana:

"At this time, we need tourism more than ever before. There's a real danger that if sustainable tourism doesn't support Botswana, then the hunting ban will be lifted. So it's up to everyone who is interested to vote with their feet. If the ban doesn't work, if the concessions don't bring in enough money to support themselves, then people will want to reinstate hunting.

Part of responsible tourism is going to places where your tourism dollars are most needed – and in Botswana's case, it's for conservation. For every person a lodge hires, 4.5 people get fed. Tourism hires staff year-round, whereas hunting lodges only operated for five months of the year, and employed a fraction of the number of staff that sustainable tourism does. Additionally, instead of 12 hunters per year in a reserve, you've got hundreds of tourists. That's a substantial return to the community through employment and gratuities – it all feeds back into the village. People also buy curios and eat much more food, supporting local producers.
There's a real danger that if sustainable tourism doesn't support Botswana, the hunting ban will be lifted.
So we need to look at the bigger picture and see how we are benefitting local communities. In the conversion from hunting to photographic safaris, we're increasing the wealth and health of communities nearby, which in turn alleviates poaching pressure, as only those on the breadline need to resort to poaching."

Desertification and drought

Almost three-quarters of Botswana is covered in desert, so water is understandably scarce. In recent years, a growing population combined with increased agriculture and grazing have put extra pressure on Botswana’s limited water supplies, while at the same time climate change has resulted in ever-more erratic weather patterns – with the annual rains becoming less predictable. As reservoirs dry up in the more densely populated south, people are turning to the north for their water, which is putting Botswana’s greatest natural resource – the Okavango Delta – at risk, along with the wildlife that depends upon it.

Responsible tourism tips

Water is extremely scarce in much of Botswana; take short showers rather than baths, reuse towels, and turn off taps when brushing your teeth. Report any leaks to staff as soon as possible. Toilets use a huge amount of water too- you don't have to flush every time. Be sure to use biodegradable toiletries and laundry detergents, especially when camping - limited water supplies will quickly become contaminated. It’s natural to want to get closer to wildlife – but this will distress them. Never ask your guide to leave the trails or drive after wildlife, and be sure to obey all rules in the reserves. Fires start fast and burn hard in the desert; never drop cigarette butts or matches on the ground, be extremely careful when building fires, and keep water to hand to extinguish sparks and embers. It is illegal to take elephant ivory, leather and tusk products, rhino horn products and cat furs into the UK and many other countries. They will be confiscated at your port of exit or entry and you could face legal proceedings.
Emma Gregg, travel writer: "Botswana was one of the first countries in Africa to create an ecotourism certification system. There are three grades, Green, Green+ and Ecotourism. It's still early days, but it's hoped that the number of properties seeking certification will rise steadily."
Richard Madden, author of The Bush Telegraph: "The best safari camps make it a policy to hire most of their staff from local communities and visiting one of their villages during your stay is a must-do. As well as being a heart-warming experience, it is also a learning experience, while knowing that your holiday is helping to support the community makes for a genuine, rather than an exploitative, exchange."
Louise de Waal, from our supplier Baobab Travel: "Remember that all waste has to be removed from the safari destinations – there is a huge amount of waste that they have to transport out of the national parks and then put into landfill. One thing you can do is limit the amount of bottles you use. If a lodge offers bottled water, it will be absolutely safe to drink, so refill bottles instead of buying new ones."
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: 2630ben] [San: Sunway] [Dereck and Beverley Joubert: Dereck and Beverley Joubert] [Litter: Survival International]