The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has quietly lifted a ban on importing elephant trophies from several African countries. As Miranda Green reports for The Hill, the FWS has said that it will now grant permits for sport-hunted elephant trophies on a “case-by-case basis”—a surprising turn in the wake of comments by President Donald Trump in November 2017, who seemed to support keeping the Obama-era blanket ban in place.
The FWS announced last week in a formal memorandum that it was revoking certain “enhancement findings” of the Endangered Species Act, which relate to the import of dead elephants from Zimbabwe and Zambia. The service also said it was withdrawing other ESA findings, some dating back to 1995, pertaining to the import of elephant, lion and bontebok trophies from other African countries, including South Africa, Tanzania and Botswana.
The memo did not specify the criteria that would be taken into consideration when granting permits, as Colin Dwyer of NPR notes. It is also not clear what role President Trump, who has referred to elephant hunting as a “horror show” and stopped previous efforts to roll back on the ban, played in the new decision.
In November of last year, the FWS, under interior secretary Ryan Zinke, made its first announcement about lifting the ban. Amid outcries from conservationists and animal rights groups, Trump stepped in and put the decision “on hold” while he reviewed “all [the] conservation facts,” the president wrote on Twitter. Trump later wrote that he would “be very hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of Elephants or any other animal,” referring to the claim by supporters of big game hunting that the sport provides funds for wildlife conservation. According to Dwyer, activists have expressed doubt that fees paid by hunters ever reach conservation groups due to corruption in African governments.
Trump reiterated his stance on keeping the ban in place in January of this year. “I didn't want elephants killed and stuffed and have the tusks brought back into this [country]. And people can talk all they want about preservation and all other things that they're saying,” he told British journalist Piers Morgan at the time. “In that case, the money was going to a government that was probably taking the money, OK?”
But in December of 2017, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling on a lawsuit brought by Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association, found that the Obama administration did not follow proper procedure when implementing its ban. The court also said “the FWS should have gone through the extensive process of proposing a regulation, inviting public comment and making the regulation final when it made determinations in 2014 and 2015 that elephant trophies cannot be brought into the country,” reports Green of The Hill.
The FWS cited the court’s decision in its recent memo, saying that the enhancement findings “are no longer effective for making individual permit determinations for imports of those sport-hunted ESA-listed species.” The service did note, however, that it would continue to consider “the status of and management program for the species” when reviewing permit applications for sport-hunted trophies.
Jimmiel Mandima, a conservationist at the nonprofit African Wildlife Foundation, tells Dartunorro Clark of NBC News that he does not see the new policy as a wholesale revocation of the ban, but rather as “the recognition of the different circumstances under which the hunting would take place.” But Mandima says conservationists have many unanswered questions about the new measures.
"The confusion is not helpful," he says. "We need more information about the criteria that’s going to be used.”
According to Clark, a spokesperson for the FWS would not comment on next steps, citing “ongoing litigation.” The spokesperson did say, however, that the “president has been very clear in the direction that his administration will go.”