A pair of African elephants bathing in mud in Namibia’s Etosha National Park. The United States is lifting a complete ban on big-game trophies from certain African countries.Credit…Felix Reinders/Barcroft Media, via Getty Images
By Rachel Nuwer
- March 7, 2018
The United States has moved to allow hunters to import big-game trophies, including elephant tusks and lion hides, acquired in certain African countries with approvals granted on an individual basis.
The decision, reported in a memorandum published last week by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, overturns an Obama-era ban on some trophies and contradicts public statements by President Trump, who had endorsed the restrictions.
In November, agency officials moved to lift the ban on elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia. The new policy supersedes and broadens that decision, officials said.
Traditionally, the agency has considered imports of trophies from certain endangered species on a nation-by-nation basis. The Endangered Species Act stipulates that in order for such trophies to be approved, exporting countries must demonstrate that hunting enhances survival of a particular species in the wild — by reinvesting the money into conservation, for example, and by supporting local communities.
In December, however, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found that officials had implemented the Obama-era bans without following regulatory procedures, including a failure to open up the decision to public comment.
To accommodate that court decision, officials said the Fish and Wildlife Service will change how it evaluates imports for certain endangered species across Africa — not just elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia, the subject of the circuit court ruling.
- The All Access sale is on. Save now.
Rather than evaluate lion, elephant and bontebok (a type of antelope) trophies on a nation-by-nation basis, the agency now will consider imports of these animals from six African countries on case-by-case basis, as it already does with the majority of species hunted on the continent.
The six countries are Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. The new policy does not mean that all trophies will be automatically permitted, officials said. The applicants will have to meet the same conservation and sustainability requirements as before.
The decision was long sought by Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association, which had filed the lawsuit against the agency.
“We were surprised as anyone when they came out with that announcement last week, but we think it’s a positive step,” said Richard Parsons, chief executive of Safari Club International. “As much as some people have a distaste for hunting, in southern Africa it actually works and is very positive for wildlife conservation.”
Whether safari hunting ultimately helps or harms fragile animal populations is a controversial question.
Hunting organizations point out that big-game sportsmen — who may pay $100,000 or more per hunt to shoot a lion or elephant — can provide indispensable funding for conservation.
“I’ve been in this business a long time and listened to a lot of animal-rights organizations that talk loudly about how they’re going to save rhinos and elephants, but we’re the ones putting money on the ground to make it happen,” Mr. Parsons said. “We think the Fish and Wildlife Service is on the right track to make solid decisions for elephant conservation.”
But conservation groups argue that alternatives should be pursued, especially when the quarry are endangered species.
“These are animals that our country has decided we’re going to protect, and we should all get to have a say in their protection,” said Elly Pepper, deputy director of the wildlife trade initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“The decision regarding whether someone’s allowed to shoot an endangered species shouldn’t be made behind closed doors.”
The agency previously made determinations about trophies publicly available, she said, but under the new system interested parties will have to file a Freedom of Information request to see details of case-by-case trophy hunting permits. Each request can take months to process.
Others share Ms. Pepper’s concerns. “These decisions are all going to be made in the dark, and this new case-by-case approach doesn’t give anyone comfort that these animals will be protected in the way the previous system did,” said Kitty Block, acting president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States.
“We think this is a one-sided attempt to appease a constituency that favors hunting.”
Ms. Block noted that the latest decision marks departure from President Trump’s public comments about big-game trophy hunting.
Following the November announcement that the United States would begin accepting elephant trophy imports from Zimbabwe and Zambia, Mr. Trump tweeted that he planned to reverse that decision and that he would be “very hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of elephants or any other animal.”
“Nothing’s changed since then,” Ms. Block said. “The elephant populations haven’t come back, there hasn’t been a slowdown in poaching or corruption — all these issues remain.”
While the agency’s new criteria are effective immediately, the circuit court must now determine whether or not the case-by-case approach is an acceptable solution.