Conservation news

Trump to allow elephant and lion trophies on case-by-case basis

The Trump administration has been mired in a controversy for months over its policy toward importing hunting trophies from Zambia and Zimbabwe. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

After months of indecision and confusion, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) says that it will now allow the importation of elephant and lion trophies on an “application-by-application” basis, according to a new memorandum.

In November of last year, the Department of the Interior announced it would end Obama era elephant protections in Zimbabwe and Zambia. Protections for lions had already been quietly taken away the previous month.

But two days later President Trump himself interjected via Twitter, dubbing trophy hunting a “horror show” and putting the decision on hold. Trump said a decision would come a week later – it never did.

“If anything, this new announcement deepens the confusion over the Trump Administration’s position on trophy hunting,” said Niall McCann, who works on the ground in Africa as the Director of Conservation for National Park Rescue. “Chaos and confusion is, of course, the modus operandi of the Trump administration, but when the lives of thousands of threatened animals, and the livelihoods of hundreds of honest safari operators are on the line, what is required is clarity.”

But a spokesperson for the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC), an international not-for-profit group that promotes hunting, welcomed the announcement so long as it led to additional hunting. They argue that the U.S. ban on elephant and lion trophies for some countries has hurt conservation.

“Tanzania, for example, has an excellent and exemplary hunting policy for lions.
However, last year only a handful of lions were taken by legal hunters,” the spokesperson said. “As a result dozens of hunting blocks were returned to the [Tanzanian government] and are now open to poaching. Millions of dollars that hunting companies invested in the conservation of their blocks every year are not available any more.”

Elephants at a waterhole in Africa. Public outrage over trophy hunting has increased markedly in recent years. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

Critics say the problem with this new declaration is that no one really knows what a case-by-case system will look like. Prior to this, the USFWS made decisions based on a country-by-country basis.

“This means that the [U.S. government] could issue import permits for elephant and lion trophies that were previously justifiably banned,” Anna Frostic, an attorney with the Humane Society of the United States said, adding that this decision could conceivably allow canned hunting of captive-raised lions in South Africa or elephants in Tanzania – both of which were previously banned.

The USFWS said its case-by-case decision-making would rely on its commitments to the Endangered Species Act (which means that the FWS has to be convinced that trophy hunting is enhancing conservation) and to CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The agency did not say how many import permits might be allowed for either species, nor was the agency able to clarify the new rule.

“Unfortunately, since aspects of the import permitting program for trophies are the focus of ongoing litigation, the Department is unable to comment about specific next steps at this time,” a spokesperson for the Department of the Interior said in a written statement.

According to the new memorandum, the decision to pursue a case-by-case basis is in direct response to a recent court ruling related to a lawsuit brought by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Safari Club – both of which favor the lifting of the former administration’s trophy importation ban.

In December, the court found that the Obama Administration had mishandled how it enacted its rules on elephants – specifically not having a public commentary period. But since the Trump Administration did the same when canceling the elephant and lion trophy ban, it could likely face the same legal slap down in ongoing lawsuits.

“This decision is clearly designed to subvert the ruling,” said Frostic, allowing all decisions regarding permitting to now be made “behind closed doors and without public knowledge or scientific scrutiny.”

An African lion. This week’s trophy hunting decision is likely to be met by court challenges. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

McCann said the decision could make corruption in Africa easier given what he calls the “highly opaque” nature of the trophy hunting industry. This “provides another mechanism for corrupting a system that claims to be designed to benefit species conservation, but all-too-often simply serves to satisfy the desires of hunters and enrich a small number of outfitters.”

The spokesperson for the CIC also said that the case-by-case basis “may impose additional bureaucracy and is an unnecessary complication.” Yet added that Germany has been enacting its policy on hunting trophies on such a basis for years.

Another on-the-ground conservationist in Zimbabawe who spoke on the condition of anonymity, called the whole thing a debate over “butchering the last survivors for entertainment.”

“American hunters have shot so many African lions here that only 3,500 males – the heads of which they [would] like on their walls – remain alive. Elephants continue to undergo genocide and they’re already extinct in 29 African countries… Every selfish act, whether in the name of ‘conservation’ or not, brings shame upon the American nation, which future generations will recall with horror,” the confidential source said.

In an interview with Piers Morgan in January, Trump called the original decision to allow importation of elephant trophies, “terrible.”

“I didn’t want elephants killed and stuffed and have the tusks brought back into this [country],” Trump explained.

Yet the latest decision may allow exactly that – though on a case-by-case basis.

“The President has been very clear in the direction that his administration will go,” the Department of the Interior wrote in their statement.

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