Leilani Sanchez, supervisory wildlife inspector with the Port of Newark, opens a box of elephant tusks at a private cargo warehouse exam site in New York City in 2014. (Yana Paskova for The Washington Post)
This post has been updated.
President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Friday night announced that the administration’s reversal of a ban on importation of elephant hunt trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia has been put on hold until further review. The sudden decision follows protests from animal rights groups and even some conservatives after the administration decided to reverse an Obama-era rule barring such imports.
President Trump tweeted first, saying the ban would continue “until such time as I review all conservation facts.”
Hours later, Zinke elaborated: “President Trump and I have talked and both believe that conservation and healthy herds are critical,” he said in a statement. “As a result, in a manner compliant with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations, the issuing of permits is put on hold as the decision is being reviewed.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had announced the policy shift just two days earlier, with officials signaling in a statement that they would expand efforts to promote trophy hunting as a form of conservation.
African elephants are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, but the Interior Department agency said it had determined that large sums paid for permits to hunt the animals could actually help them “by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation.”
Under the Obama administration, elephant-hunting trophies were allowed in South Africa and Namibia but not in Zimbabwe because Fish and Wildlife decided in 2015 that the nation had failed to prove that its management of elephants enhanced the population. At the time, Zimbabwe could not confirm its elephant population in a way that was acceptable to U.S. officials and did not demonstrate an ability to implement laws to protect it.
According to individuals briefed on the rule change, agency career staff had decided to allow Zimbabwean imports after officials there provided sufficient documentation. The issue was a priority for Interior’s political appointees, added the individuals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, but the appointees did not dictate the outcome.
The change was to apply to elephants shot in Zimbabwe on or after Jan. 21, 2016, and to those legally permitted to be hunted before the end of next year.
The African elephant population in that country has fallen 6 percent in recent years, according to the Great Elephant Census project. It is relatively stable in Zambia, which has decided to renew hunting after having previously banned it because of several decades of sharp decline.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has also been reviewing whether to allow elephant trophy imports from Tanzania, where poaching is rampant and the species has suffered a sharp decline in recent decades.
The agency’s move came a week after Zinke established an “International Wildlife Conservation Council” to advise him on how to increase Americans’ public awareness of conservation, wildlife enforcement and the “economic benefits that result from U.S. citizens traveling abroad to hunt.”
“The conservation and long-term health of big game crosses international boundaries,” Zinke said in a statement announcing the group’s creation. “This council will provide important insight into the ways that American sportsmen and women benefit international conservation from boosting economies and creating hundreds of jobs to enhancing wildlife conservation.”
Two of the department’s existing wildlife advisory bodies — the Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking and the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council — remain suspended as a result of a temporary freeze Zinke imposed earlier this year on all such panels. And the U.S. Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, which was codified into law last year and is led by Interior as well as the Justice and State departments, has not been active since Trump took office.
“If you care about wildlife, how can you ignore wildlife trafficking?” said Bob Dreher, vice president for conservation at the Defenders of Wildlife, who served as Fish and Wildlife associate director from 2014 to 2016.
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Safari Club International, a hunting advocacy group that has consistently opposed any restrictions on importing trophies from abroad, broke the news of the rule change a day ahead of the government. Its statement included a detail that the agency omitted: A Fish and Wildlife official made the announcement at a forum the Safari Club’s foundation arm co-hosted in Tanzania, from which elephant trophy imports remain banned. An agency spokeswoman declined to confirm that account.
A representative of the group, along with several other hunting activists, joined Zinke in his office on his first day as he signed one secretarial order aimed at expanding hunting and fishing on federal lands and another reversing an Obama-era policy that would have phased out the use of lead ammunition and tackle in national wildlife refuges by 2022.
Zimbabwe is currently in turmoil, with President Robert Mugabe under house arrest as a military coup unfolds. In criticizing the ban reversal, the Humane Society of the United States called the ban on Zimbabwean elephant imports reasonable because Zimbabwe is “one of the most corrupt countries on Earth.” The organization noted that Mugabe celebrated his birthday in 2015 by dining on an elephant.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) had referenced the country’s political crisis in criticizing Fish and Wildlife’s move.
“In this moment of turmoil, I have zero confidence that the regime — which for years has promoted corruption at the highest levels — is properly managing and regulating conservation programs,” Royce said in a statement Friday afternoon. “Elephants and other big game in Africa are blood currency for terrorist organizations, and they are being killed at an alarming rate. Stopping poaching isn’t just about saving the world’s most majestic animals for the future — it’s about our national security.”
Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society, had described the situation in harsher terms in a blog post, writing of “a venal and nefarious pay-to-slay arrangement that Zimbabwe has set up with the trophy hunting industry.” In response to the latest announcement, Pacelle said via email that he was “grateful to President Trump for reassessing elephant and lion trophy hunting imports. This is the kind of trade we don’t need.”
While hunting has fostered conservation in the past, allowing it now could undermine efforts to curb the widespread poaching that underpins the global ivory trade, according to Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder and senior scientist at the Nairobi-based Save the Elephants.
Africans, he said in an interview Thursday, are “being told don’t kill elephants, and rich Americans are being allowed to come and do it. When you go back in history, it did do good, but now is absolutely not the time to be opening up hunting.”
In another potential policy reversal, Fish and Wildlife posted an online guide for hunters on how to import lion trophies. In 2016, after listing African lion populations as threatened or endangered depending on their location on the continent, the agency established specific requirements for allowing imports of their trophies. The Service also banned imports of trophies from lion populations kept in fenced enclosures to be hunted.
How to treat animal trophies Americans shoot overseas has been a contentious issue for years. The pelts of nearly four dozen polar bears that U.S. citizens shot in Canada in spring 2008 have remained stuck there after Fish and Wildlife declared the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
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