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Trump puts controversial decision allowing elephant trophy imports ‘on hold’

  • Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allowed elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia to be imported to the U.S., lifting a previous ban under former President Barack Obama.
  • This move sparked criticism not only from conservationists and animal rights activists, but also from some President Trump supporters.
  • Following the widespread criticism, Trump tweeted that he would announce his decision on trophy imports next week.

Last Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lifted a ban on importing elephant trophies from Zimbabwe imposed under President Barack Obama in 2014. At a meeting of government officials and professional hunting associations in Tanzania, the U.S. federal agency announced that elephants that were legally hunted in Zimbabwe and Zambia between January 21, 2016, and December 31, 2018, could now be imported into the United States.

The agency later issued a notice saying it had “made a finding” that the hunting of trophy African elephants in Zimbabwe during this period “will enhance the survival” of the threatened animals. The notice does not mention Zambia.

On Friday, however, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that he was putting the big game trophy decision on hold until he had reviewed all “conservation facts”. He also said that his decision on the trophy imports will be announced next week.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke tweeted a statement, saying “President Trump and I have talked and both believe that conservation and healthy herds are critical. As a result, in a manner compliant with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations, the issuing of permits is being put on hold as the decision is being reviewed.”

The USFWS justified lifting the 2014 ban by arguing that well-managed trophy hunting can benefit conservation “by generating funds to be used for protecting wildlife habitat, monitoring populations, wildlife management programs and law enforcement efforts”. The agency also argues that trophy hunting fees provide an incentive for the local communities to protect wildlife.

In its report, the USFWS said that the Service had sent a letter to Zimbabwe on April 4, 2014, requesting information on elephant population in the country and how U.S. hunters contributed to the enhancement of the species. Based on the information provided to the USFWS in the following years, the Service concluded that “there now appears to be a greater effort on the part of ZPWMA [Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority] to work with NGOs, landowners, and safari area concessionaires to improve elephant management and anti-poaching efforts.”

African elephant. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

But the African Wildlife Foundation said that although ZPWMA has developed a good elephant management plan, the authorities lack the necessary funding to operationalize it. “ZPWMA is terribly under-funded,” AWF said in a statement. “They lack vehicles, fuel, ammunition, and even rations. While it is true that hunting can provide revenue for conservation, it is false to assume it will come close to meeting the urgent needs of ZPWMA. Elephant hunting is already happening in Zimbabwe, so this action by the Trump administration would have only incrementally increased hunting revenue.”

Primatologist Jane Goodall added that “very little money [from trophy hunting] is actually used for conservation, and that the safari companies organizing these murders have their own staff, so that typically the local communities receive very little compensation. To kill endangered animals is not a good idea, and we must remember that each elephant is a highly intelligent social individual whose life matters.”

The move to lift the ban also sparked criticism from some Trump supporters. “I don’t understand how this move by Admin will not INCREASE the gruesome poaching of elephants,” Laura Ingraham, Fox News host tweeted.

British television host Piers Morgan added: “This appalling decision doesn’t make America great again; it makes America cruel again.”

Ed Royce, a member of the Republican Party and the Chairman of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs also criticized the decision, calling it the “wrong move at the wrong time”.

Zimbabwe is currently undergoing a political upheaval, with Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old President being sacked from the ruling party last week and the military taking over.

African elephants by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

Latest surveys have estimated that Zimbabwe has about 80,000 elephants. While this is a large population relative to other African countries, elephant numbers in Zimbabwe have declined by 11 percent since 2005, the surveys found. In northwestern Zimbabwe, populations have fallen by 74 percent.

Elephant population in Zambia, estimated to be around 20,000, has also suffered an 11 percent decline during the past decade. The decline has been especially drastic in some parks like Sioma Ngwezi National Park in southwest Zambia, where poaching has reduced elephant numbers from 1,089 in 2004 to 48 in 2015.

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