Partially reversing an Obama-era ban, the Trump administration will now allow U.S. hunters to bring home the remains of elephants they’ve killed in Zimbabwe and Zambia in southern Africa.
The move, announced earlier this week, was greeted with cheers by hunters and firearms groups and but was derided by animal-rights advocates as the government argued that conditions for elephants in parts of Africa had “changed and improved” in recent years.
The sides starkly disagree over whether the move helps or hurts elephant conservation efforts in the long run, with one animal advocacy group already threatening to sue the Trump administration over the decision.
African elephants are a “threatened” species protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which limits American hunters bringing back trophies — body parts — unless “the killing of the trophy animal will enhance the survival of the species.”
Hunter groups argue that pricey exotic-animal hunting trips help elephants by providing tourism revenue to African nations that bolsters conservation programs. Animal-rights advocates say that encouraging trophy imports only encourages more hunters to kill elephants.
African elephants have lost more than 50% of their range across the African continent since 1979 and have been slaughtered for trophy hunting and their ivory tusks, which are banned from international trade.
African savanna elephants saw their population decline 30% between 2007 and 2014, according to a wildlife survey called the Great Elephant Census.
Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suspended elephant-trophy imports in 2014 from Zimbabwe and Tanzania. The agency singled out Tanzania for “questionable management practices, a lack of effective law enforcement and … uncontrolled poaching and catastrophic population declines.”
Gun groups protested the Obama administration’s decision as hasty. The National Rifle Assn. and the Safari Club International, a hunters’ advocacy group, tried to block the bans in court, arguing the government failed to gather enough data to make its decision.
But Trump’s election in 2016 has brought a friendlier administration into office for the groups, which predominantly support Republicans. (Trump’s sons have hunted exotic animals in the past, and Donald Trump Jr. has been photographed holding up the severed tail of an elephant.)
On Tuesday, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced at the African Wildlife Consultative Forum in Tanzania — an event co-hosted by Safari Club International — that the trophy bans on Zimbabwe and Zambia were being lifted, though the ban in Tanzania would remain in place.
The hunters group said it was “honored” that the wildlife service made the announcement at its event. The group’s president, Paul Babaz, added in a statement, “We appreciate the efforts of the Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior to remove barriers to sustainable use conservation for African wildlife.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service said that officials in Zimbabwe had strengthened conservation programs in recent years and that newer data showed that more than 80,000 elephants lived in Zimbabwe.
In a statement, the Fish and Wildlife Service said that “legal, well-regulated sport hunting” can incentivize African communities “to conserve those species and by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation.”
But the announcement drew a quick backlash.
“Trophy hunting causes immense suffering and fuels the demand for wild animal products,” said World Animal Protection, an international animal-rights nonprofit.
One of President Trump’s supporters in conservative media, Fox News host Laura Ingraham, marked her skepticism on Twitter: “I don’t understand how this move by @realDonaldTrump Admin will not INCREASE the gruesome poaching of elephants.”
The Center for Biological Diversity, an animal-rights nonprofit, threatened to sue, with senior attorney Tanya Sanerib calling the administration’s timing “bizarre” and “shocking” due to the ongoing coup d’etat in Zimbabwe.
“With tanks in the streets, whoever is actually running the Zimbabwe government just can’t be trusted to protect elephants from slaughter by poachers,” Sanerib said in a statement.
The Trump administration plans to start reissuing trophy permits for Zimbabwe on Friday. U.S. hunters can legally bring back only two elephant trophies per year.
Matt Pearce is a national reporter for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @mattdpearce.