President Donald Trump’s oldest child, Donald Trump Jr., shoots from the hip when he talks, and he shoots large animals for fun. These are the main things we know about him. While the former is often more newsworthy, that’s been upended this week, with the Trump administration’s extremely controversial announcement that it will be loosening restrictions on trophy hunting imports from Africa.
The reversal of the 2014 ban on the import of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia was first publicized Tuesday by the Safari Club International (SCI), an organization that lives and breathes for its five-day “Ultimate Hunters’ Market,” where attendees pay tens of thousands of dollars for permits to kill all sorts of exotic game. Even though elephants have been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 1978, there’s a provision allowing the government to give permits to import the trophies—i.e. dead animal parts—if there is solid evidence that hunting benefits the species overall.
Well, apparently less than four years after the original import ban went into effect, the the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has new information showing that elephant trophy hunting in Zimbabwe and Zambia actually benefits elephants. In a week where Zimbabwe’s longtime leader, Robert Mugabe, is being removed from power via what for all intents and purposes is a coup, putting faith in one of the world’s most corrupt governments to manage trophy hunting in a positive way seems like quite the reach.
Surprisingly, Trump Jr. has not yet tweeted his enthusiasm about this development.
The Humane Society states that a number of problems with Zimbabwe’s elephant management remain unresolved:
“The lack of an elephant management plan; lack of sufficient data on population numbers and trends; anemic enforcement of wildlife laws; lack of information about how money derived from trophy hunting by U.S. hunters is distributed within Zimbabwe; and lack of a national mechanism, such as government support, to sustain elephant conservation efforts in the country.”
Masha Kalinina, with the Humane Society International, told Earther that the arguments the administration is using to justify removing the import ban are “misguided because critical information on population data and population trends is still missing, and without this information hunting quotas cannot be sustainable. “
“The information on how trophy hunting funds are distributed and spent is not public, and given the rampant corruption in Zimbabwe, one can conclude that much of it does not make it back to wildlife,” she said.
With guns so front and center in this issue, it’s unsurprising that the National Rifle Association is also involved. SCI and the NRA filed a lawsuit challenging the Obama administration’s ban years ago, and are working to make it so that hunters who killed during the import ban can retroactively bring their elephant parts back to the U.S.
Well, at least those elephants are dead already.
Dr. Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, told Earther that there is no basis for the reversal of the ban.
“The hunting bans went into effect because hunting had become largely uncontrolled in these countries, with some hunters killing dozens of elephants on the same license while claiming just one,” he said. “There is no basis to assume that conditions have changed.”
He said while several decades ago there was evidence that hunting could help in some areas by getting more eyes on the ground to detect illegal activities, “as habitats became more fragmented, and the market for poached ivory increased, this trend reversed.”
“With safe areas limited for elephants, hunting merely added to the insecurity,” he said. “Perhaps most importantly, very little of the revenue from hunting was put towards conservation. The campfire program in Zimbabwe,” which encourages rural communities to conserve local wildlife, “is a case in point. Several decades ago, it was a great success story. Then, as incentives to poach increased and hard times increased corruption, the programs unraveled and did far more harm than good. It is simply to easy to take advantage of the system under these circumstances.”
He said the administration’s action amounts to a total disregard for the environment, and a “travesty for the world only to the benefit that small portion of the wealthy who believe they are entitled to their wealth and the opportunities it provides, regardless of the cost to everyone and everything else.”
Greg Sheehan, principal deputy director of the FWS, originally broke the news during the SCI-hosted African Wildlife Consultative Forum (AWCF) in Tanzania this week. An FWS spokesperson defended the news in a statement, saying “legal, well-regulated sport hunting as part of a sound management program can benefit the conservation of certain species by providing incentives to local communities to conserve the species and by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation.”
This is a charged topic to say the least, with the underlying problem being that megafauna across Africa are heading toward extinction. While elephants are doing better, population-wise, than say, rhinos, without effective protective measures, wild elephants could be a thing of the past in the near future. Somewhere around 400,000 African elephants are estimated to remain in the wild, a number that pales in comparison to the 26 million elephants that roamed the continent just over 200 years ago.
So-called sport hunters, who kill for recreation and often trophies, frequently justify their actions by asserting that the money they pay for the kill will do more good when put back into conservation efforts. They argue that without this influx of money, many of the rare species targeted would otherwise be more vulnerable to poaching and habitat loss.
In some cases where the hunting is well-regulated, such as on U.S. exotic game reserves, this can indeed be true. But with big game like elephants and lions, requiring large, connected landscapes in Africa, it’s a much more complex situation. Simply stating that trophy hunting will be “good for the elephants” makes a lot of assumptions about management, oversight, and follow-through—assumptions that aren’t always justified.
National Geographic reports that according to a recent analysis of FWS data by Humane Society, trophy hunters “imported more than 1.26 million trophies to the U.S. in the decade from 2005 through 2014.”
“That’s an average of 126,000 trophy imports a year, or 345 a day,” National Geographic notes. The ‘Big Five’ trophy species imported into the U.S. are lions, elephants, rhinos, buffalo, and leopards.
Jeffrey Flocken, North American Regional Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, recently told Earther that “studies have shown that non-lethal safaris and ecotourism bring in billions more revenue to Africa than trophy hunting. And animal viewing can be done over and over, whereas a trophy hunting just happens once and then the animal is gone from the ecosystem.”
Wasser said that there is actually growing evidence that hunting—legal or illegal—can increase human-wildlife conflict by causing elephants to flee areas where they are hunted, making them more likely to enter unfamiliar habitat where they are more likely to encounter crops.
“Because they also have increased fear of people, they are also more likely to be more aggressive, leading to increased human and elephant mortality, making people more willing to kill elephants,” he said. “It’s a viscous circle.”
The change will not be official until a notice is posted in the Federal Register on Friday, which will presumably include more details on the information justifying these changes. The finding applies to elephants hunted in Zimbabwe on or after January 21, 2016, and on or before December 31, 2018, and elephants hunted in Zambia during 2016, 2017 and 2018.
In a rare moment of genuine dismay at the Trump administration by a Fox News host, on Thursday Laura Ingraham wondered the obvious: How will this help elephants?
If the administration’s past environmental decisions are any indication, it’s not worth hanging around for a satisfying explanation.
Update: 11/17/2017 9pm ET: In a startling reversal mere hours after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a justification for reversing the Obama-era ban on elephant trophy imports from Zimbabwe, President Trump tweeted that he would be putting the decision “on hold” until he had time to review all of the “conservation facts.”
Perhaps he heard how upset certain Fox News hosts were about the decision? We’ll update when more information becomes available.
Update: A previous version of this post included statements from an outside source that were not properly attributed. The text has been updated to clarify the source of the language and properly attribute it.