Finally, one thing a divided nation — conservative and liberal politicians and commentators — can agree upon: Endangered African elephants shouldn’t be hunted for fun and profit.
After a public outcry, President Donald Trump put “on hold” a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finding “that the killing of African elephant trophy animals in Zimbabwe … will enhance the survival of the African elephant.”
The administration recently lifted a similar ban in Zambia.
Ten million elephants roamed Africa more than a century ago, according to the Global Elephant Census, but have dwindled to 374,000 today — declining by 30,000 annually since 2007.
Elephants are falling prey to hunters engaged in mass slaughter using AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades. Bloody battles in national parks have pitted poachers against rangers and soldiers trying to protect elephants.
The prize is the ivory in the elephants’ tusks, which is highly valued in Asia, particularly China, where it is carved into statuettes, boxes and other items.
In 2014, President Barack Obama banned the import of elephant heads, feet and other body parts severed as trophies after being shot for sport. Although the Endangered Species Act states hunted trophies only can be imported if they don’t contribute to the extinction of the species, Americans still lead the world in bringing those protected species home.
According to the Humane Society, U.S. hunters had imported an average of nearly 200 elephant trophies annually between 2005-14 from Zimbabwe alone. That fell to three in 2016 following the ban.
Although Trump’s sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, have hunted African elephants, the president has stated he is not a hunter. Yet until the backlash — including from Fox News host and Trump supporter Laura Ingraham, who wondered how his decision would not “increase the gruesome poaching of elephants” — it seemed another instance of Trump’s insatiable desire to shoot down Obama decrees.
Ill-advised decisions by the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species previously had worsened the elephants’ plight. In 1999, it allowed a one-time sale of stockpiled ivory to Japan and in 2008 to China and Japan. That stimulated demand, poaching and illicit trading.
“In Hong Kong, one of the ivory trade’s main transit points, seized ivory rose from 3.2 tons in 2010 to 7.9 tons in the first 10 months of 2013 — the equivalent of 1,675 dead elephants,” according to a Smithsonian report. “Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan and the Philippines have also become major purchasers of elephant tusks. In December 2012, Malaysian authorities seized 1,000 elephant tusks hidden in secret compartments in two shipments of mahogany from the West African nation of Togo. The 24-ton seizure, worth tens of millions of dollars, is believed to be the largest such haul in history.”
Things were looking up thanks to Obama’s order and a joint commitment made with Chinese President Xi Jinping to impose near-total elephant ivory bans in both countries.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the review of the ban began with the Obama administration and determined “Zambia and Zimbabwe had met new standards, strict international conservation standards that allowed Americans to resume hunting in those countries.”
The review stated, “The government of Zimbabwe, nongovernmental organizations, safari outfitters, professional hunter associations and individuals provided the service with additional information … demonstrating that the facts on the ground have changed and improved.”
Yet safari outfitters and professional hunters have an obvious bias, as did the Zimbabwe government of Robert Mugabe, which was ousted last week in a military coup.
Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle has stated, “Government officials allegedly have been involved in both poaching of elephants and illegal export of ivory tusks. … Mugabe even celebrated his birthday last year by feasting on an elephant.”
The contention that revenues from hunters’ permits will help manage elephant herds is fantasy. Australian-based Economists at Large found those fees were only 1 percent of the revenue generated by wildlife-related tourism, while National Geographic reported the fees fed government corruption, not conservation.
Elephants are not alone among protected species in the crosshairs of trophy hunters. After the killing of Cecil, an iconic lion, by a Minnesota dentist in Zimbabwe last year, Obama put lions under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Other nations and even airlines — more than 40 won’t carry hunting trophies — followed suit. Rhinoceroses and leopards also need protection.
The main constituency for overturning the ban is the Safari Club International, trophy hunters who sued the Obama administration in 2014 and may have an ally in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
A White House official told the Washington Post that Trump now has a “discomfort” with reversing the ban. We suspect much of the public does too. It would be smart to heed that sentiment.