The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released a formal memorandum last Thursday reversing a piece of Obama-era legislation that banned the importation of elephant trophies in Zimbabwe. Instead, cases will be treated on an “individual basis”, starting immediately.
According to the memo, “the findings [of the 2014 and 2015 Endangered Species Act (ESA)] are no longer effective for making individual permit determinations for imports of sport-hunted African elephant trophies.” The FWS will also withdraw several other ESA findings regarding the sport hunting of elephants in other African countries as well as African lions and a species of antelope called the bontebok.
Instead, the department will use the ESA’s findings “as appropriate” when deciding whether or not to grant or deny applications on imported trophies on a "case-by-case" basis.
The FWS first announced plans to reverse the policy in November, saying “Legal, well-regulated sport hunting as part of a sound management program can benefit the conservation of certain species by providing incentives to local communities to conserve the species and by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation.” Evidence suggests the opposite, but more on that later.
However, things were quickly put on hold with President Trump promising to review “all conservation facts” before making any final decisions. Things even looked positive for the elephant when he took to his favorite communication platform with this particular tweet:
Later, in an interview with Piers Morgan on ITV, he admitted that the policy reversal would not be a good thing, adding that he "didn't want elephants killed and stuffed and have the tusks brought back" into the country.
But Trump is a notorious flip-flopper and his close ties to the National Rifle Association (NRA) – who (unsurprisingly) support any practices that involve participants stocking up on guns and bullets – may have helped sway his final decision. Is it just a coincidence that his decision comes in the wake of the Florida shooting and calls for tougher restrictions on guns?
We also know that big game hunting is a favorite pastime for some members of the Trump family.
Regardless of the motives, it is going to be devastating for the African elephants, who have seen population numbers plummet from 3-5 million at the start of the 20th century to just 415,000 today.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature echoes the FWS's sentiment on the role "well-managed" trophy hunting can play in conservation, but studies have shown the reverse – trophy hunting can push vulnerable species towards extinction.
Instead, conservation experts say that it is eco-tourism, where people come to see living, breathing animals, not trophy hunting, that will best provide locals with the revenue and incentives to protect wild animal populations.