The Trump administration has lifted a ban on importing sport-hunted trophies of elephants from certain African countries, just over three months after President Trump appeared to pause a first attempt to do so amid public uproar. In a memo dated March 1, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that in place of the Obama-era blanket ban, the agency will consider importation permits “on a case-by-case basis.”
The memo, which was not publicized by the agency, did not clarify the specific guidelines by which the permits would be judged. It is also not clear what role was played in the decision by the president, who has publicly expressed his opposition several times to rolling back the ban.
In November 2017, just one day after the Fish and Wildlife Service announced it had lifted the ban, Trump said he had put that move “on hold until such time as I review all conservation facts.” Two days later, he tweeted that he “will be very hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of Elephants or any other animal.”
Donald J. Trump
Big-game trophy decision will be announced next week but will be very hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of Elephants or any other animal.
As recent as late January, Trump rejected the possibility he would lift the ban.
“I didn’t want elephants killed and stuffed and have the tusks brought back into this [country]. And people can talk all they want about preservation and all other things that they’re saying,” he told British broadcaster Piers Morgan, referring to the argument proffered by his own interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, and others that fees paid by big-game hunters could help fund conservation programs. “In that case, the money was going to a government that was probably taking the money, OK?”
“That was done by a very high-level government person,” he added in reference to the agency’s decision. “As soon as I heard about it, I turned it around.”
It’s not clear exactly what persuaded the service to make the change. In a document that was published in the Federal Register on Friday, the service says that Zimbabwe has “stepped up its anti-poaching efforts” and now has “a more systematic, scientific approach” to establishing limits on elephants that can be hunted. It said the Zimbabwean government was increasingly supporting local conservation efforts.
Nothing in the government’s documentation addresses Zambia. Asked by NPR for further information about the decision to allow trophy imports from that country, FWS spokesman Gavin Shire wrote that there was “[n]othing other than the finding itself.”
Safari Club International, a hunting advocacy group, was apparently the first to get news of the policy change, and it cheered the development in a blog post Tuesday. The group, along with the National Rifle Association, has been fighting the Zimbabwe banin court ever since it was announced in 2014.
“These positive findings for Zimbabwe and Zambia demonstrate that the Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes that hunting is beneficial to wildlife and that these range countries know how to manage their elephant populations,” SCI President Paul Babaz said in a statement.
But others argue that Zimbabwe has not proved it has an effective elephant management plan. The Great Elephant Census found Zimbabwe’s elephant population had decreased 6 percent in recent years. In the country’s Sebungwe region, elephant populations were down 74 percent.
The study found that in Zambia, there were “substantial declines along the Zambezi River,” but the population was otherwise stable.
The Humane Society of the United States came out strongly against the policy change and said a number of problems remain with Zimbabwe’s elephant management plan, including poaching, corruption and a lack of government support.
“Let’s be clear: elephants are on the list of threatened species; the global community has rallied to stem the ivory trade; and now, the U.S. government is giving American trophy hunters the green light to kill them,” wrote Wayne Pacelle, the organization’s president and CEO, before the president’s tweet.
“What kind of message does it send to say to the world that poor Africans who are struggling to survive cannot kill elephants in order to use or sell their parts to make a living, but that it’s just fine for rich Americans to slay the beasts for their tusks to keep as trophies?” he added.
After the president said he would reconsider lifting the ban, Pacelle tweeted that he was grateful to Trump and that “This is the kind of trade we don’t need.”
The new policy applies to elephants hunted in Zimbabwe between Jan. 21, 2016, and Dec. 31, 2018, as well as elephants hunted in Zambia from 2016 to 2018.
Apparently some hunters have elephant trophies waiting for them in Zimbabwe and Zambia. “Individuals who have hunted or wish to hunt elephants during that period will need to apply for and obtain import permits from the FWS in order to bring their elephants home,” Safari Club International said in its post, adding that elephants from Zambia will require extra documentation.
The parts of the elephant that hunters choose to import as a trophy can vary.
“Generally, the tusks are,” SCI Director of Communications Steve Comus told NPR in an email. “In some occasions, the skull might be (could even be skull with tusks). And, there are other parts imported sometimes, as well. What happens is that all of the meat, etc. is consumed by local people there in Africa (typically a village close to where the elephant is harvested). So, most of the elephant not only remains in Africa, but in the stomachs of local Africans.”
The announcement comes amid major political changes in Zimbabwe. Earlier this week, President Robert Mugabe was pushed aside by his country’s military. He had been in power since the 1980s.