The U.S. government continues to grant permits to hunters seeking to import the remains of elephants shot in Zimbabwe as trophies, federal documents show.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service awarded permits to 16 people in 11 states who requested them between January 2016 and as recently as October, according to Friends of Animals, a nonprofit environmental group that obtained documents through a Freedom of Information Act request. The organization released the documents Friday.
The permits were for elephants shot before 2014, the year the Obama administration decided to ban the import of trophies from Zimbabwe after Fish and Wildlife determined that the country’s management of its elephant population was not sound in accordance with the Endangered Species Act.
The ban went into effect the following year. Last month Fish and Wildlife announced a decision to lift it but President Trump postponed the action the next day following a public outcry over the slaughter of elephants.
Friends of Animals said in a statement saying the information it uncovered proved that the administration was issuing permits in violation of the ban. Fish and Wildlife declined to provide a statement about the permits when the group released the documents, but denied the group’s account Saturday.
“We did not issue new permits for elephant trophies from Zimbabwe in violation of our import,” the agency’s statement said. “They were only for animals legally hunted during the Obama administration and prior to the 2014 suspension.”
The first permit awarded this year came four days after President Trump’s inauguration, and the last came shortly before a controversial proposal in November to lift the ban against trophy imports from Zimbabwe.
A public uproar over Fish and Wildlife’s lifting of the ban prompted Trump to put the decision on hold pending a review. Ryan Zinke, secretary of the Interior Department, which oversees Fish and Wildlife, subsequently announced that he agreed with his boss. Neither Trump or Zinke have spoken about the issue or the review in the month since the controversy erupted.
Under the Obama administration, elephant-hunting trophies were allowed in from South Africa and Namibia, which worked diligently to account for elephants under its care and protect the population. Zimbabwe failed to meet Fish and Wildlife’s conservation standard for an animal that’s considered threatened in the wild under the Endangered Species Act. For starters, it lacked knowledge of the size and whereabouts of much of its herd.
Zimbabwe and Safari Club International, which worked to improve the management of Zimbabwe’s elephants, celebrated last month’s initial announcement of a lifting of the ban against imports. Safari Club was so zealous that it made the announcement a day before Fish and Wildlife. The club bemoaned Trump’s and Zinke’s subsequent decision to review the plan by issuing a “call to arms,” blaming conservation groups and news outlets.
Zimbabwe and other hunting clubs voiced similar outrage. But opponents of lifting the trophy import ban included some of Trump’s staunchest supporters, including radio talk show host Laura Ingraham.
Friends of Animals sued to reinstate the ban less than a week later. To support its legal challenge, the group requested and received a spreadsheet from Fish and Wildlife documenting the issuance of permits to import the remains of African elephants and lions, which are also listed as threatened, as trophies.
Michael Harris, the wildlife law program director for the group, said the permits support his group’s case against the Trump administration’s initial attempt to overturn the ban.
“This really helps us show this is an unsubstantiated change in position” on the ban by Fish and Wildlife, Harris said. The group has a second Freedom of Information Act request for the applications submitted by the permit recipients and material supporting their requests.
“They were granted when the ban was in place, so we’re questioning that,” Harris said. He disputed the explanation that they were granted because the animals were shot at a time when the United States approved of Zimbabwe’s management and trophy imports were legal. “I don’t buy it,” Harris said.