JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Botswana's president says criticism of his government's anti-poaching policy is "nothing but hysteria," following reports that poachers are killing more elephants in a country with Africa's biggest elephant population.

The remark by President Mokgweetsi Masisi came after some conservationists expressed concern that Botswana's wildlife department had been stripped of weapons required for the sometimes dangerous work of thwarting armed poachers.

"This stretch of imagination of linking the poaching of any species with an alleged disarmament of the department of wildlife is nothing but hysteria," Masisi said Saturday after returning home from an official trip to China.

Elephants Without Borders, a conservation group, said this month that results from an ongoing elephant census in Botswana indicate poaching has surged. The spike coincided with the disarming of anti-poaching units, the group said.

The southern African country has long been a refuge for elephants on a continent where tens of thousands have been killed over the years for their ivory. A study a few years ago said Botswana had 130,000 elephants.

Botswana's military has killed some suspected poachers who illegally crossed the border, a crackdown seen as necessary by some conservationists but criticized by neighboring countries.

The government of Masisi, who took office this year, said weapons were withdrawn from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks in line with legislation that bars the department from having them.

An official previously specified that the weapons in question are military issue, indicating that the department does retain some firearms. And all security agencies have been involved in anti-poaching operations since the 1980s, according to the government.

Accustomed to international praise for conservation efforts, Botswana has come under scrutiny from groups such as PETA that suggest an outcry over the weapons issue could hurt wildlife tourism there.

"As Botswana's government transitions to a new anti-poaching policy, it remains to be seen whether the spike in poaching is an isolated incident or reflects a troubling new trend," said another group, WildAid.

Pushing back at critics, Masisi said the fact that elephants have flourished in Botswana is a tribute to the country's conservation approach.

"Most are found here," he said. "It's not accidental. It is we who caused them to be."

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