Monica Medina is an adjunct professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She served as senior adviser to former secretary of defense Leon Panetta from 2012 to 2013.
Days after the Trump administration ignited a public uproar by moving to allow hunters to bring the remains of dead elephants "bagged" in Zambia and Zimbabwe back into the United States, President Trump unexpectedly changed his tune and vowed to review "the conservation facts" and provide a decision this week.
But elephants and other endangered species aren't out of the woods yet. Lion "trophies" can still enter the United States from Zambia and Zimbabwe (another reversed policy from the Trump administration this year), and Congress is close to creating a loophole allowing polar bear and elephant remains to be imported from anywhere. Pro-hunting lobbyists have many paths to their trophies.
There is no dispute — elephants are at grave risk of extinction. Consequently trade in elephant ivory is generally banned internationally, within many countries, and even in some states. For years spanning Republican and Democratic administrations, the United States has been a global leader in conserving these majestic but slow-breeding creatures, whose numbers have been shrinking rapidly due to a poaching epidemic in Africa.
Indeed, elephant poaching has been linked to international criminals and even terrorist groups because ivory is extremely valuable on the black market. In response, the world set about crushing illegal ivory to permanently remove it from commerce and drastically limit its trade. But if big-game hunting is not really ivory trade, why is it such a big deal?
Allowing the importation of elephant trophies would be a terrible blow to elephant conservation for three reasons: First, it fosters an illegal trade in ivory that is still not under control. The more legal hunting is allowed and encouraged, the more ivory there will be in the stream of commerce. That makes it harder to isolate and end the illegal trade. Elephant populations in these countries are so small any action that encourages their hunting – legal or illegal — puts them at even greater risk. For example, in Zambia, the elephant population is down to less than 22,000 animals — only 10 percent of the 200,000 surveyed in 1972.
Second, this policy would economically damage these two nations, where tourism is increasingly tied to people seeing elephants rather than killing them. This is why the neighboring government of Botswana outlawed game hunts several years ago. Studies consistently show that charismatic wildlife is much more valuable alive than dead. Tourists come from all over the world to observe elephants in their natural habitat in eco-friendly places such as Botswana, where it is relatively easy to see increasingly scarce but beloved animals such as giraffes, elephants, rhinos and lions. I will never forget my own trip there, where we watched an angry elephant mother in a showdown with a huge male lion. Amazingly, after more than 20 tense minutes of back and forth, the elephant won.
Moreover, big-game hunting is the last vestige of wealthy colonialism. It has nothing to do with conservation. The tragic killing of "Cecil" the lion a few years ago heightened the public's condemnation of the conspicuous consumption of Africa's wildlife. This is not deer or duck hunting, sports that are common and affordable to many Americans. Far from it. Game hunting in Africa is something that only the obscenely wealthy can afford to do. The safari alone costs more than $50,000, not including fees for importing the "trophy."
And that is why reversing trophy-hunting policy was so appealing at first blush: It stokes the Republican base of hunters who reflexively fight to defend their rights, but it really only benefits ridiculously wealthy people such as the president's friends and family.
Finally, lifting the ban also risks harming our national security. Big-game hunting is so expensive that it is difficult to rid it of corruption. Indeed, that is why the U.S. government prohibited the importation of elephant trophies from Zambia and Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe this week had a de facto military coup, with President Robert Mugabe holding on to office, but in title only. Zambia is more politically stable, but it is struggling economically. With terrorist networks gaining a greater foothold in Africa, this is a bad time for our government to make elephant poaching any easier. Global criminals and terrorists will continue to ply this trade and we will all pay the price.
Without the sharp pushback from some conservative commentators, it's likely the policy reversal would have remained. For now, the president has us all guessing: Will he lift the ban or leave it in place? If he really believes trophy hunting is a "horror show," then he should prove it by banning all together the importation of the remains of elephants, lions and any other endangered species and by fighting congressional efforts to limit his authority to impose such a ban.