The wildlife management areas of northern Botswana are divided into parcels of land known as ‘concessions’. These are often located close to or bordering game reserves and national parks and, years ago, most of these concessions were utilised for the purpose of controlled hunting. In the early days, there were more people visiting Botswana to hunt animals than were there to photograph them. That situation has gradually changed, however, and today photographic safaris are by far the more important segment of the tourist industry.
Once a former hunting area has been secured, there is much to be done and a successful changeover is not always as straightforward as it may seem. New camps have to be erected, and usually quickly, for purposes of economy. A road network has to be created to facilitate interesting game drives. The long-term goal is to have a few low-impact safari camps in an area with wildlife densities as they once were.
But the situation immediately after hunting has stopped is usually quite far removed from what is considered ideal, and this is especially true when it comes to the quantities of wildlife. Some species may be directly depleted by hunting, while others may move away from an area. The behaviour of wild animals that have experienced hunting pressure makes it very difficult to view them. In a place where I worked directly after hunting had ceased, it took almost two years before bull elephants could be seen anywhere near our camp during the day. It took female leopards three years before they began to allow us to view them without disappearing into cover the moment they heard the sound of the vehicles. How rapidly some species will repopulate an area that has been heavily hunted depends on how healthy wildlife stocks are in the surrounding areas. Concessions that are adjacent to national parks may repopulate more quickly than those that neighbour farming areas.
Sometimes this can make for challenging conditions in which to operate photographic safaris, but the end result is worth the effort and investment. Animals become increasingly accustomed to the benign presence of humans and vehicles and there is nothing quite as rewarding as watching a wild area regenerate itself.
The government in Botswana is currently reviewing the policies that have regulated the hunting industry there in the past. Changes may be imminent, and it seems likely that still more land may be switched to photographic use. When one sees on a map how the land-use pattern has changed over the past 15 years, it is almost as if a giant jigsaw puzzle is being built, with one piece at a time being added.
In these days of ever-increasing human populations and shrinking wildlife habitat, it is indeed encouraging to know that there are still places where the protected areas are growing. Long may it last.
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