There is a photo that surfaced earlier this year of Donald Trump Jr. holding an African elephant’s severed tail. It was from the very African elephant that he shot and killed during a big game hunting trip he took with Eric Trump in Zimbabwe. I saw this photo for the first time on Twitter only weeks ago, following an announcement from the Trump Administration that they were rolling back the ban on the import of game trophies from Africa that was passed during President Obama’s second term.
To say elephants are astounding is quite the understatement. They are able to recognize their family members. They have the largest brain of all land mammals, which has been determined to be as complex as a human’s. They hold funerals for their dead. How anyone could kill one is beyond me. Yet here is our current President’s son with a smile on his face after he contributed to the 30% reported decline of the species since the 20th Century. Today it is reported that only 350,000 African Elephants remain. They are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The complete ban passed during the Obama Administration on the import of ivory and game trophies only applied to a few African countries including Zimbabwe and Zambia—the two countries found to be the worst offenders for Elephant and Lion populations. After much scrutiny in Congress following the initial announcement in 2014, it was decided complete bans would only be applied to these countries with poor conservation laws and limited efforts to stabilize the species’ populations. Otherwise, trophy imports would be allowed so long as permission was granted from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as well as proper permits were acquired in the African country where the hunt took place. This rollback from the Trump Administration is in no way a complete repeal. However, those same considerations and permissions may now be granted in Zimbabwe and Zambia on a case-by-case basis, despite the two countries still showing miniscule conservation improvements. Furthermore, in order to view these hunters’ requests, a Freedom of Information request will need to be filed, which can take months to process and approve, offering protection to these offenders.
Back in November 2017, Trump promised to keep the ban in place until the issue was properly examined. Evidently that examination only took four months, with pressure mounting courtesy of a lawsuit against the FWS filed by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Safari Club International (SCI). These two interest groups claim hunting assists conservation efforts through the money big-game hunters ultimately spend on their trips. Those funds can be used to sponsor rural communities and protect the wildlife, they say. But how often is this truly the case for these countries? There is little factual or statistical evidence that this strategy works in terms of increasing conservation.
Now, I am not completely against hunting. My father hunts deer and duck. The difference between this issue and my father going on his one trip per year is that White-Tailed Deer and Mallard Ducks are not endangered or vulnerable species in the state of Maryland. My concern over this change is that the Trump Administration was able to pass this so subtly as well as after promising the former legislation would not be changed only a few months ago. I find the lack of coverage and explanation from the current Administration extremely troubling. What sort of precedent is this for future conservation efforts if protections and acts can be dismantled under the rug?
In siding with the NRA and the SCI, there is now an increased potential for strengthening the black market for ivory and African big-game trophies imported to the U.S. This case-by-case scenario could increase poaching efforts overseas, given that there are now loopholes rather than a complete ban. It may be only changed for two countries as of now, but there were still six total African countries we saw as failing to comply with standards our nation set under the Endangered Species Act. Elephants need strength in numbers to continue to thrive as a species now more than ever, and this policy change will permit further exploitation all for a pair of mounted tusks or a tail. What Safari hunting trip is truly worth the end of a species?