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Elephant trophy hunting, and Trump's reversal on it, explained

The Interior Department ended a ban on importing elephant carcass “trophies.” Then Trump tweeted.

An African Safari Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

It’s been a whiplash week in elephant hunting news.

First, on November 14, officials from the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced at a conference in Tanzania (hosted by hunting associations) that the agency had completed an assessment and would soon be allowing hunters who kill elephants in Zimbabwe and Zambia to import their trophies into the US again. Their justification?

“We are now able to find that African elephant trophy hunting in Zimbabwe will enhance the survival of the species in the wild,” read a November 17 statement on the agency website.

Hunting groups like the National Rifle Association and the Safari Club International Foundation were thrilled by the news. They’d been lobbying the Trump administration to reinstate these trophy import permits after failing to get a 2014 ban on the practice under the Obama administration overturned with a lawsuit. “These positive findings for Zimbabwe and Zambia demonstrate that the Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes that hunting is beneficial to wildlife and that these range countries know how to manage their elephant populations,” SCI Foundation president Paul Babaz said in a statement.

The argument that hunting is beneficial to wildlife is hotly contested. The idea makes some sense on paper but often fails in the messy reality of the real world. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s announcement last week was met with swift reaction from animal rights groups like the Humane Society, and from celebrities. The decision (regarding Zimbabwe) was published in the Federal Register on Friday.

Under fire from conservative media pundits he admires, President Donald Trump announced late Friday in an astonishing tweet that he would put the decision on hold, pending a review of “all conservation facts” — which is a bit surprising considering the president’s two adult sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, are avid hunters. He is expected to make a decision next week.

On Sunday, Trump went on to tweet that he’d “be very hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of Elephants or any other animal.”

As Michael Doyle of E&E News has pointed out, it’s incredibly unusual for the president to “immediately put on hold an agency decision that had gone through routine procedures including final publication in the Federal Register.” Especially one who has not made wildlife conservation — or any other kind of environmental policy — a priority.

So what is this all about? Is elephant hunting in Africa a “horror show” or a feel-good conservation story? Since the Trump administration certainly hasn’t been telling much of a coherent story (the Fish and Wildlife Service’s own press release on the matter “has been removed for updating.”)

Let’s break it down.

What would the US Fish and Wildlife proposal do?

If the removal of the ban were to go into effect, it would mean that the US Fish and Wildlife service would, starting in 2018, allow hunters to apply for permits to bring back “trophies” — i.e., elephant carcasses and body parts other than ivory, the import of which is banned in the United States outright — from hunting expeditions in the two countries.

The notice in the Federal Register only applies to elephants hunted in Zimbabwe between January 21, 2016, and December 31, 2018, so it’s not retroactive to elephant trophies hunted before this time period. According to E&E News, the change in Zambia would apply for the same dates (the notice on elephant trophies in Zambia has not yet been published to the Federal Register website).

Under President Obama, the Fish and Wildlife Service banned the import of these trophies from those two countries due to insufficient data on conservation efforts. According to the agency, the government of Zimbabwe has now adopted better systems to account for these hunts, has set hunting quotas, and is collecting better data on how they impact the health of wild herds.

According to the FWS:

Under this system, all authorized hunts are now being registered, allowing for the capture of hunting data, such as the origin of clients, value of trophies and hunts, and area hunted, so that officials can monitor hunting quota utilization and track hunted trophies. This system will provide data that was not previously easily obtained and greatly improve the ability to track hunting revenue.

African elephant populations are still near historic lows

There used to be 10 million elephants in Africa in the early 1900s. Today there are just a few hundred thousand, and their numbers are still declining. African elephants are protected under the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species, and are listed as vulnerable (which is between “near threatened” and “endangered”) on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of the conservation status of animals.

Though the populations are greatly diminished across the continent, they are not direly small. There are an estimated 82,000 elephants in Zimbabwe, down 10 percent since 2005.

Normally the Endangered Species Act would prevent any trade of a protected animal’s carcass. But there’s an exception. If, according to Title 50, “the killing of the trophy animal will enhance the survival of the species,” the animal can be permitted to be imported — though no more than two per year, per hunter. (The import of trophies had been allowed from South African and Namibia.

Wait, what? How does hunting elephants for “trophies” aid their survival?

Yes, on the face of it, the argument doesn’t make any sense: How can condoning the killing of animals actually aid their survival?

The thrust of the argument: There are Americans who are willing to pay exorbitant sums for the chance to kill one of these creatures. That money then can be put toward conservation efforts that protect the remaining herd. These trips can cost upward of $20,000. National Geographic documents one elephant hunt that over the course of 14 days cost $80,000. In Zimbabwe, the “trophy fee” — the administrative cost to kill one elephant — is $14,500.

That’s no small donation to conservation efforts. That money pays for law enforcement to stop poachers and better track elephant populations (not to mention the tourism dollars that support local economies).

Is Trump right? Are there reasons to doubt that the trophies could actually help the elephants?

A key piece of context for this story: Zimbabwe is currently undergoing a period of political unrest. As Vox’s Ella Nilsen explained, over the weekend the ruling party of the country gave President Robert Mugabe an ultimatum: leave office or face impeachment. Nilsen wrote:

The move could bring a rapid end to a crisis that was triggered when the country’s military ousted Mugabe in a bloodless coup last week. Mugabe’s impeachment would represent a massive power shift in the country, which the president has ruled with an iron fist since 1980. ZANU-PF [the ruling political party] members also ousted Zimbabwe’s controversial first lady Grace Mugabe, who many believed was poised to become her husband’s successor.

Political turmoil in a country notorious for corruption does not make for a compelling setting for environmental conservation.

The money-raising schemes sound okay on paper, but in practice they don’t always work out so cleanly. As the Humane Society notes, “it was Zimbabwe where Walter Palmer shot Cecil, one of the most beloved and well-studied African lions, who was lured out of a national park for the killing.”

And there’s not great evidence that this conservation tactic works. For its October issue, National Geographic investigated the claim that hunting helps conserve threatened animals. Tanzania lost two-thirds of its lions from 1993 to 2014, despite a trophy hunting program. Overall, reporter Michael Paterniti found, “what happens to the hunters’ fees, that is notoriously hard to pin down — and impossible in kleptocracies.”

On Friday, the Washington, DC-based African Wildlife Foundation said in a statement, “Trophy hunting can only be an effective tool for conservation when associated decisions and financial flows are transparent. Unfortunately, this decision by the Trump administration has been anything but transparent.”

The AWF cited concerns of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s sympathy for hunters and the gun lobby. The AWF also fears that Zimbabwe would need more financial support to make good on its conservation plans.

What got Trump to act?

Trump’s comments may put him at odds with Zinke, who recently announced the creation of a special council to investigate “the benefits that international recreational hunting has on foreign wildlife and habitat conservation.”

But conservatives aren’t uniformly in support of trophy hunting. As the Washington Post points out, conservative allies like Laura Ingraham and Michael Savage were vocally against lifting the trophy import ban. What’s more, the Fish and Wildlife Service announcement got a lot of play on cable news, and Trump “is especially susceptible to visuals,” as the Post notes. Celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres helped focus attention on the issue, and the president may have taken the opportunity to play the hero in this media narrative.

Also, the president may honestly believe that trophy hunting is wrong. Though his sons have partaken in the expensive activity, Trump indicated a differing opinion on the sport in 2012 (in response to Cher, of course).

So what happens now?

One, we wait for Trump’s decision on the matter (though he may drag his feet). Two, the conservation groups the Center for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council have filed a lawsuit in an attempt to halt the Fish and Wildlife notice on the elephants, and a previous loosening of restrictions on importing lion trophies from these countries. The lawsuit cites corruption in Zimbabwe and the governments chaotic messaging on the issue as reasons why the changes should not go through. Three, if the ban stays pro-hunting groups could potentially sue the Trump administration as they did when Obama was in the White House, as E&E points out.

For now, it’s a rare win for conservation activists challenging the Trump administration.

“This is a wise and welcome pause in the process,” the World Wildlife Fund wrote.