Here’s a seemingly simple question: Is it legal to bring elephant body parts collected in hunting exhibitions in Africa back to the United States?
During the Obama administration, the answer became a clear “no” — the import of elephant trophies was banned outright under the Endangered Species Act. But in November, President Trump’s US Fish and Wildlife Service announced it was set to lift the ban. Hunting groups like the National Rifle Association and the Safari Club International Foundation, which had opposed the ban, were thrilled by the news.
But after a flood of criticism (including from conservatives), Trump himself suddenly was not.
In a tweet, Trump announced that the lifting of the ban was on hold, pending further review. In a follow-up tweet, he went on to say he’d “be very hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of Elephants or any other animal.”
So are elephant trophies still banned then?
Fish and Wildlife has decided, in response to a lawsuit from hunting advocates and the NRA, to allow the import of trophies on a case-by-case basis. Hunters argue that the trophies actually aid in elephant conservation: The fees they pay to governments for the permits to hunt are supposed to be fed back into conservation efforts. And in its latest memo, Fish and Wildlife says that the case-by-case decisions will be determined “to ensure that the [hunting] program is promoting the conservation of the species.”
So why is this happening? In December, a federal appeals court ruled on a suit brought by the NRA and the Safari Club arguing that the Obama administration had not followed the exact letter of the law when creating the regulation that banned the trophies. Specifically, the judge said it didn’t go through the usual lengthy rulemaking process that involves a period of public comment.
Because of the decision on the case, Fish and Wildlife says, it’s lifting the Obama-era ban and moving to this “case-by-case” evaluation of permits instead.
It will be interesting to see how the president responds, since he has publicly disagreed with hunting advocates and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the uberboss of Fish and Wildlife, on this issue. It is also unclear to what degree the White House was involved in the latest announcement. Fish and Wildlife released its latest decision without much fanfare. We’ll have to wait and see if Trump himself wades back into the issue.
Since the Trump administration certainly hasn’t been telling much of a coherent story on elephant hunting, it’s worth revisiting the facts. Does the hunting actually help elephants? Here’s what we know.
African elephant populations still near historic lows
There used to be 10 million elephants in Africa in the early 1900s. Today there are just a few hundred thousand, and their numbers are still declining. African elephants are protected under the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species and are listed as vulnerable (which is between “near-threatened” and “endangered”) on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of the conservation status of animals.
Though the populations are greatly diminished across the continent, they are not direly small. There are an estimated 82,000 elephants in Zimbabwe, down 10 percent since 2005.
Normally the Endangered Species Act would prevent any trade of a protected animal’s carcass. But there’s an exception. If, according to Title 50, “the killing of the trophy animal will enhance the survival of the species,” the animal can be permitted to be imported — though no more than two per year, per hunter. (The import of trophies had been allowed from South Africa and Namibia.)
A warped argument
Yes, on the face of it, the argument doesn’t make any sense: How can condoning the killing of animals actually aid their survival?
The thrust of the argument: There are Americans who are willing to pay exorbitant sums for the chance to kill one of these creatures. That money then can be put toward conservation efforts that protect the remaining herd. These trips can cost upward of $20,000. National Geographic documents one elephant hunt that over the course of 14 days cost $80,000. In Zimbabwe, the “trophy fee” — the administrative cost to kill one elephant — is $14,500.
That’s no small donation to conservation efforts. That money pays for law enforcement to stop poachers and better track elephant populations (not to mention the tourism dollars that support local economies).
Political unrest and trophy hunting
Countries that allow for elephant hunting, like Zimbabwe, are often caught up in political unrest. Political turmoil in areas notorious for corruption does not make for a compelling setting for environmental conservation.
The money-raising schemes sound okay on paper, but in practice, they don’t always work out so cleanly. As the Humane Society notes, “it was Zimbabwe where Walter Palmer shot Cecil, one of the most beloved and well-studied African lions, who was lured out of a national park for the killing.”
And there’s not great evidence that this conservation tactic works. For its October issue, National Geographic investigated the claim that hunting helps conserve threatened animals. Tanzania lost two-thirds of its lions from 1993 to 2014, despite a trophy hunting program. Overall, reporter Michael Paterniti found, “what happens to the hunters’ fees … is notoriously hard to pin down — and impossible in kleptocracies.”
By Brian Resnick. Source: Vox