Sport hunters may once again import elephant and lion trophies from Zambia and Zimbabwe, thanks to the Trump Administration and its supporters at the Safari Club. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the change in policy in a statement published yesterday, though the news was actually broken at a conference attended by Trump Administration officials in Tanzania sponsored by Safari Club International, the chief proponent of the new policy, two days earlier.
Why is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—a government agency—attending conferences hosted by a special interest group on taxpayer dollars and announcing policy changes that it hasn't made public? That’s a stumper for sure.
But even more perplexing is how the Trump Administration could find that Zimbabwe is successfully managing its elephant population—especially when the country is, as I write, enduring a military coup.
The U.S. Endangered Species Act states that trophies of animals listed under its protections—which include African elephants—may only be imported into the U.S. if the Fish and Wildlife Service determines such an import would “enhance the survival of the species.” In 2015, the Obama Administration suspended elephant trophy imports from Zimbabwe and Tanzania precisely because it could NOT make such a finding. The Obama Administration reasoned that the fact that Zimbabwe's elephant population had declined from 84,416 in 2007 to 47,366 in 2013 showed the country had failed to successfully manage its elephants. Further, Zimbabwe didn’t demonstrate any ability to protect its elephants—its management plan was outdated and failed to detail how it would implement elephant conservation goals—not to mention the country’s laws and regulations regarding elephants; Zimbabwe’s government provided little support for elephant conservation; and Zimbabwe failed to provide data showing how trophy hunting revenue actually benefits local communities and elephants.
So what has changed in the last 2 years that might indicate that Zimbabwe DOES adequately protect its elephants?
Absolutely nothing. It's actually worse.
Zimbabwe is a disaster politically, and it’s well-accepted that, generally, countries with unstable and nonexistent governments take terrible care of their wildlife. But I’m looking forward to reading the Administration’s reasoning, which was just released in the Federal Register. No doubt it will all focus on how trophy hunting benefits conservation—which it sometimes can, but not when it concerns endangered species and not in corrupt, war-torn countries like Zimbabwe.
This news comes days after Secretary Zinke announced the establishment of a new “International Wildlife Conservation Council” to advise Trump on how to enhance trophy hunters’ ability to hunt internationally. The Council, which is accepting nominations for membership largely from the hunting industry, will obviously be heavily biased towards trophy hunters and no doubt lead to numerous other despicable decisions regarding species already on the brink. Indeed, the Council’s mandate includes counseling Trump on the economic benefits of trophy hunting, “the benefits [of] international hunting  on foreign wildlife and habitat conservation,” and the benefits of trophy hunting on “antipoaching and illegal wildlife trafficking programs.” Trump doesn’t want advice on the drawbacks of trophy hunting, of which there are many.
While depressing, none of this is too surprising for those of us who have seen countless photos of Trump’s sons posing with their animal trophies. But it is disgusting and, likely, illegal. Our lawyers are looking hard at this and we’re weighing our options—fortunately, we saw it coming and are prepared to do whatever it takes to stop it.