A herd of elephants stands near a water hole in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, east of Harare, in September 2013. Zimbabwean ivory poachers killed more than 80 elephants by poisoning water holes with cyanide that year, endangering one of the world’s biggest herds. (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

President Trump’s announcement that he is delaying a decision on allowing elephant hunting trophies from Zimbabwe drew angry reactions from hunting groups and reignited a heated debate over whether killing iconic animals is the best way to manage their shrinking populations.

Last week, the Trump administration announced it would reverse a ban on trophy imports from Zimbabwe that had been imposed by the Obama administration. Two days later, however, Trump tweeted that elephant hunting is a “horror show” and suggested he would maintain the ban.

Hunters have criticized the decision to delay ending the ban. In voicing their indignation, hunters were careful not to blame the president. Instead, one of the largest and more recognized groups, Safari Club International, issued a call to arms against “hysterical anti-hunters and news media outlets” that “went into overdrive, attacking everyone in sight, including the Trump administration, SCI and even the National Rifle Association of America” after the decision was announced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last Wednesday.

The Safari Club said the hold is the result of “shrill, negative reactions.” It asked supporters to use its “action center” to call in and tell Trump how much they appreciate the finding that Zimbabwe had enhanced its program to protect elephants, paving the way for allowing trophies of legally hunted elephants to be imported. SCI did not respond to requests for comment.

Seventy percent of hunters who pay up to $20,000 for permits to legally harvest elephants are American, according to Campfire, a group in Zimbabwe that manages its elephant hunting program. The program’s revenue dropped from an average of $2 million per year before the ban in 2014 to $1.73 million last year, Charles Jonga, Campfire’s director, said in an email.

Jonga joined hunters in blaming Trump’s decision on others. “This is certainly not about President Trump’s reaction,” he said, “but about animal welfare lobbyists who have nothing to show for their misplaced belief that they can dictate to African rural communities how they should share their living space with wildlife.”

Trump tweeted Friday that he would put off a decision until he could meet with Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke. Zinke, an avid hunter and trophy collector, later issued a statement on Interior’s website and tweeted that he agreed with the president.

During the Obama administration, Fish and Wildlife had questioned Campfire’s management and how much revenue was devoted to the conservation of elephants. Animal rights groups such as the Humane Society International said much of the funding was lost to corruption. The arrest of Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, within days of the Trump administration’s favorable finding raised concerns.

Elephant hunting trophies are allowed to be imported to the United States from two other African countries, South Africa and Namibia. Another country, Zambia, was given the green light by the Fish and Wildlife Service last week. The current controversy focuses on the import of trophies from Zimbabwe.

On Monday, two environmental groups sued the Trump administration over the move to end the ban, which they called contrary to the slow and deliberate process called for under the Endangered Species Act, which lists African elephants as threatened.

“Trump’s abrupt backpedaling after public outcry, while appreciated, shows how arbitrary this deplorable decision was,” Tanya Sanerib, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “These incredibly imperiled creatures need a lot more than vague promises.”

The Center for Biological Diversity and Natural Resources Defense Council drew on Zimbabwe’s troubles in the announcement of their lawsuit, filed at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. To arrive at an enhanced finding that elephant herds are well managed, Fish and Wildlife must rely on “Zimbabwe having the plans, resources, funds, and staff to conserve elephant and lion populations.”

“But . . . corruption is already a huge concern” due to the ouster of Mugabe. Also, the groups noted, “Zimbabwe scored an abysmal 22 out of 100 on Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perception Index.

“Poaching elephants for their ivory remains a significant threat in Zimbabwe. According to aerial surveys — known as the Great Elephant Census — Zimbabwe’s elephant population decreased 6 percent between 2001 and 2013, when the aerial surveys were performed.” They went on to point out that controversies over animal killing often arise in Zimbabwe, where Cecil the Lion was illegally tracked, shot with an arrow and killed by an American hunter.


Elly Pepper, deputy director of a wildlife trade initiative and program at NRDC, called Trump’s announcement a pleasant surprise but said he needs to do more. “These tweets are still really ambiguous,” she said. “And tweets don’t have any legal authority. We want to make sure that the administration doesn’t have its cake and eat too. We want to ensure they aren’t going to quietly start issuing trophy permits and enjoy public support because their tweets indicated they oppose trophy hunting.”

Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, said his organization plans to work with Trump without taking legal action. But Pacelle questioned the idea of killing elephants to conserve them.

“Botswana disallowed all trophy hunting, and Botswana has more elephants by a long shot than every other country,” Pacelle said. “It’s recognized that this would damage the brand of the nation. Trophy hunting subtracts animals from nature. It diminishes the value of animal populations.”

During the controversy in 2015 over allowing a rhinoceros hunter to import the trophy head of a rhinoceros he planned to kill in Namibia, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature said concern over the act confused illegal poaching with well-managed hunting tourism.

“Well-managed trophy hunting has little to do with poaching, and indeed can be a key tool to help combat it,” the union said in a statement. Without it, African conservationists “would not be able to employ the upwards of 3,000 field rangers employed to protect wildlife and enforce regulations.” Namibia’s conservation is viewed by Fish and Wildlife as one of most responsible such programs in Africa.

Pacelle dismissed this type of argument. Hunters never say “we want to trophy hunt because we want to mount the head,” Pacelle said. “They always apply something to it. They could just give the money for conservation. But they want something out of it.”

In a year that saw the Ringling Bros. Circus fold after a century and a half following an outcry over its treatment of animals, the nation is experiencing a major shift in tolerance, according to Pacelle.

“That was a marker of how our attitudes have evolved toward elephants. We don’t want to see anyone chain them and have them perform silly stunts,” he said. “It’s worse to shoot them in the head.”

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