A few months before jetting off on my 8-month sabbatical to southern Africa, I had given up meat. It was 2016. For years, the desire had been there—but like so many, the inconveniences of adapting this to our daily life, and the place meat holds in French culture delayed this implementation. The tipping point finally came after seeing undercover footage from inside slaughterhouses. In early 2016, little did I know my travels to Botswana would give yet another reason to support ending my meat consumption.
In July 2016, my first stop was the Modisa Project in Botswana on the outskirts of the Kalahari. During my four weeks there, I learned of the changes the country’s wildlife had gone through in the previous decades, with great decline in wildlife populations.
I was even more surprised to find out that one of the main causes was not one of the sensationalized one seen in media, such as trophy-hunting or poaching. It was rather a more, pernicious one: my past, and the present beef-eating habits of Europeans.
Following its independence, Botswana entered into a contract with the European Union to set up a cattle industry to export beef to the EU’s market. To make this happen, the country’s new cattle industry had to adhere to the EU’s strict hygiene code which required the strict separation between cattle and Botswana’s wild inhabitants. To this effect, the country preceded with the enactment of veterinary fences from the 1960s onward, setting up more and more over the years. Botswana’s wildlife decline started at the same time, with many academics citing the erection of the fences as the leading causes  . Doing some research to find out more on the topic, I was shocked to encounter research which had found that wildebeest had declined from 315,000 to 16,000, and Hartebeest from 293,000 to 45,000, as a result of the range of fences .
Throughout the 1960s, beef was the country’s main export. This was replaced by diamonds as early as the 1970s, and tourism knocking it off its second place in the 2000s. Today, Botswana’s beef sector accounts for less than 2% according to estimations, with declining trends in the last couple of decades both as a share of national GDP, and as a leading global beef exporter. In parallel, most recent figures from the contribution of tourism to Botswana’s GDP put it around 13%, with an annual growth rate of between 4-5%. With 80% of international trips to Africa attributed to wildlife tourism and projected increases in sales (covid-19 aside), and with declining beef consumption trends, it seems there are relevant economic trends supporting a re-evaluating the cost-benefit analysis of maintaining the status quo.
While the large network of fences remains, there have however been very encouraging signs in local areas where fences have been removed. In 2005, the Kalahari Conservation Society found that “the removal of the 210 kilometer Setata Fence and the 66 kilometer portion of the Nxai Pan Buffalo Fence resulted in an immediate end to negative impacts on wildlife populations in the affected areas”. Seasonal migrations of elephants, zebras and wildebeests were revived in the area. I was delighted to find further cases supporting these positive findings, covered by National Geographic.