US Lifts Ban on Import of African Elephant Hunting Trophies: What It Means

A taxidermist in Namibia prepares an elephant killed by a hunter. (Image credit: Ta Ton Koene/Whitehotpix/Zuma)

Editor's Note:On Friday evening (Nov. 17), President Trump tweeted that he was putting on hold the ban reversal on the import of African elephant trophies. Read more about the reversal of the reversal.

Earlier this week, the Trump administration lifted a ban on importing hunting trophies from African elephants into the United States, claiming that this policy change would benefit elephants — but conservation officials are skeptical.  

Representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced in a statement yesterday (Nov. 16) that the department would begin issuing permits allowing the import of sport-hunted trophies collected from elephants killed in Zimbabwe from Jan. 21, 2016, through Dec. 31, 2018. However, a ban remains on importing elephant trophies from Tanzania, according to the statement.

The FWS had suspended the importation of elephant-hunting trophies from Zimbabwe in 2014, and the decision to lift the ban was based on new information about improved prospects for elephant populations in the country, with the expectation that elephant trophy hunting in Zimbabwe "will enhance the survival of the species in the wild," FWS representatives explained in a statement. In their statement, the FWS specified that hunters are permitted to import up to two elephant trophies that were acquired in Zimbabwe, per year. [7 Iconic Animals Humans Are Driving to Extinction]

According to the FWS, hunting trophies are defined as raw or preserved animal parts collected by a recreational hunter "for personal use." This may include "bones, claws, hair, head, hide, hooves, horns, meat, skull, teeth, tusks or any taxidermied part, including, but not limited to, a rug or taxidermied head, shoulder or full mount."

News of the FWS decision first appeared online Nov. 14 in a blog post shared by the hunting organization Safari Club International (SCI). On that day, at the African Wildlife Consultative Forum (AWCF) in Arusha, Tanzania — an event co-hosted by the government of Tanzania and SCI — FWS representatives announced that the agency "had made positive enhancement findings for elephants legally hunted in Zimbabwe and Zambia" between 2016 and 2018.

But the statement on the FWS' website does not mention a change in the status of bans on elephant trophies from Zambia, and Gavin Shire, a spokesperson for the FWS, said there were no further details about Zambia "other than the finding itself," NPR reported.

Nevertheless, a chart on the FWS website indicating African countries' status for the import of elephant trophies from 2014 to the present confirms that elephant trophies acquired in Zambia between Jan. 1, 2016, and Dec. 31, 2018, are approved for import into the U.S.  

A species in peril

The African elephant's (Loxodonta africana) conservation status is listed as "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), which is applied when a species' numbers have declined by more than 30 percent over the past decade or when their habitat is fragmented, deteriorating or greatly reduced. It warns that the species is facing a high risk of extinction in the wild, according to the IUCN.

Zimbabwe is home to an estimated 83,000 African elephants — more than in any other country except Botswana, according to the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. Recently, the government of Zimbabwe drafted a new elephant management plan to replace older, outdated documents. The new plan is expected to enable more accurate accountings of elephant populations and to improve the tracking of revenue from sport hunting. The aim is to help officials assess the potential financial benefits to conservation resulting from this hunting, FWS representatives explained in the statement.

The FWS International Affairs division describes trophy hunting as a conservation tool, and the department "can allow the import of a sport-hunted elephant trophy only when the killing of the trophy animal will enhance the survival of the species."

However, some conservation organizations are skeptical of the benefits of legal big-game hunting and trophy collection for preserving and protecting elephants. In addition, there is the additional concern that lifting the trophy ban will send a troubling message to poachers about the United States' commitment to ending trade in animal products from threatened and endangered species, M. Sanjayan, CEO of Conservation International (CI), told the CI blog "Human Nature."

"The original ban was enacted based on detailed findings on the condition of elephant populations on the ground, and it strains credulity to suggest that local science-based factors have been met to justify this change," Sanjayan said.

"This is the wrong move at the wrong time for protecting Africa's wildlife," he added.

Original article on Live Science.

Mindy Weisberger
Live Science Contributor

Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology, and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.