Supporters of trophy hunting say that permit fees from the practice, which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars in the case of large game like elephants, can be put toward conservation efforts that help bolster the populations of endangered animals.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has made a finding that the killing of African elephant trophy animals in Zimbabwe, on or after January 21, 2016, and on or before December 31, 2018, will enhance the survival of the African elephant,” according to a notice posted Friday in the federal register.
Late Friday evening, President Trump announced via Twitter that he would "put big game trophy decision on hold until such time as I review all conservation facts." Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke followed up with a statement saying, “President Trump and I have talked and both believe that conservation and healthy herds are critical. 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.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) issued a statement Friday noting that in light of Zimbabwe's current political turmoil – President Robert Mugabe is now under house arrest after a military coup – it made no sense to ease restrictions on trophy imports.
"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. "Furthermore, I am not convinced that elephant populations in the area warrant overconcentration measures."
If the logic of killing elephants to save them strikes you as questionable, you're not alone.
As of 2014 the African elephant population stood at an estimated 374,000, according to the Global Elephant Census, a massive and costly effort to measure the continent's remaining savanna elephant population. That's down from an estimated 10 million elephants at the turn of the 20th century, and from 600,000 of the animals as recently as 1989.
The more detailed population trend data from the census showed that populations had been on a rebound from 1995 to about 2007. But since then, elephant populations have been declining by a rate of about 8 percent annually, or 30,000 elephants each year.
“These dramatic declines in elephant populations are almost certainly due to poaching for ivory,” according to the census. “Elephant poaching has increased substantially over the past 5—10 years, especially in eastern and western Africa.”
It's theoretically possible, of course, that population declines would be even worse without the legally sanctioned killings of hundreds of elephants a year. But there are also a number of very good reasons to suspect that trophy hunting does not bring any great benefit to Africa's elephant populations.
For starters, the hunting of elephants brings in very little revenue. A 2017 report by Economists at Large, an economic analysis firm based in Australia, found that in eight African countries, trophy hunting amounted to less than 1 percent of total tourism revenue and 0.03 percent of the countries' total gross national product. A 2015 National Geographic report found that only minimal amounts of revenue from game hunting actually trickled down to the communities managing elephant populations. Government corruption is a big factor in this, with authorities keeping hunting fees for themselves and seizing wildlife lands to profit from hunting and poaching.
Zimbabwe, in particular, has been rife with bad wildlife management practices, which is why the Obama administration banned elephant trophy imports from the country in the first place.
“For decades, Zimbabwe has been run by a dictator who has targeted and killed his political opponents, and operated the country’s wildlife management program as something of a live auction,” said Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the United States in a blog post. “Government officials allegedly have been involved in both poaching of elephants and illegal export of ivory tusks. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe even celebrated his birthday last year by feasting on an elephant.”
Before the Obama administration's ban, animals hunted in Zimbabwe accounted for nearly half of all elephant trophy imports to the United States, according to Fish and Wildlife Service data analyzed by the Humane Society. After the ban was put in place, elephant trophy imports fell dramatically.
In Zimbabwe alone, from 2005 to 2014, American hunters imported an average of nearly 200 elephant trophies each year. As of 2016, that number had fallen to just three. If the number returns to historic averages after the Trump administration's rule change, roughly 200 additional elephants would potentially be killed each year by American hunters in Zimbabwe.
The ban's reversal comes at a particularly inauspicious time for Zimbabwe, just two days after the military took control of the country, accusing the government of corruption. “This fact in and of itself highlights the absurdity and illegal nature of the FWS decision to find that Zimbabwe is capable of ensuring that elephant conservation and trophy hunting are properly managed,” wrote the Humane Society's Pacelle.
In response to President Trump's announcement that he would put the decision on hold, 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."
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.