The Trump administration's decision to revoke an Obama-era ban on the import of elephant trophies from select African countries to the U.S. has sparked debate over the value of trophy hunting to conservation amid elephant population decline and political turmoil in Africa.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in a press release that it "will begin issuing permits to allow the import of sport-hunted trophies from elephants hunted in Zimbabwe, on or after January 21, 2016, and on or before December 31, 2018, for import permit applications that meet all other applicable requirements."
The ban, which was put in place in 2014 after the government determined that Zimbabwe didn't have effective enough conservation practices to allow for hunting, applied to all elephants hunted in the country between the start of 2016 and the end of 2018, ABC News reports.
Elephants are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. According to the FWS, Zimbabwean elephant conservation management practices have improved since they were last reviewed. The agency determined that "trophy hunting in Zimbabwe will enhance the survival of the species in the wild."
Hunters will also be able to import elephant trophies from Zambia. Elephant hunting in Zambia have been restricted on multiple occasions, but was reinstated in 2015. In 2016, 30 were allowed to be killed as trophies.
There is nothing in the FWS announcement that addresses the import of trophies from Zambia, though FWS representatives have been telling news agencies the new policy applies to both countries. When asked to explain the government's reasoning for allowing trophies from Zambia, FWS spokesman Gavin Shire issued a vague response to NPR: "Nothing other than the finding itself."
The FWS first mentioned the policy change at the African Wildlife Consultative Forum co-hosted by Tanzania and Safari Club International. SCI then publicly announced the news in a blog post on Nov. 14.
ABC News later reported that the ban on trophy imports from Zimbabwe and Zambia was similarly lifted for lions in October. Lion trophy imports were already allowed from managed areas in South Africa to the U.S. and may soon be allowed from Mozambique, Namibia and Tanzania.
The reports have reignited the debate of using wildlife hunting as a conservation tool. The issue has long divided hunters, conservationists and animal rights advocates on whether it actually helps wildlife.
On the pro-hunting side, it is said to help conservation efforts by providing tourism revenue to the local economy, which gives an incentive to locals to protect wildlife and puts money toward conservation. Supporters of this stance include SFI and the National Rifle Association.
Detractors seem to outnumber supporters.
According to the Los Angeles Times, elephants' range in Africa has shrunk by 50 percent since 1979. The Great Elephant Census found that populations declined by 30 percent between 2007 and 2014.
International animal rights nonprofit World Animal Protection said, "trophy hunting causes immense suffering and fuels the demand for wild animal products." The demand for ivory is particularly worrisome because it is banned from international trade, which encourages hunters to poach illegally as opposed to spending thousands of dollars to go through legal routes.
African governments take initiative in preventing poaching, but this is made much more difficult during times of political tension. Zimbabwe is currently facing a coup d'etat and the military is holding Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe under house arrest. Conservationists were left scratching their heads as to the timing of the FWS announcement amid this political instability, NBC reports.
"This news came at the very second that I was reading about the military coup in Zimbabwe," said Elly Pepper of the National Resources Defense Council. "It's well known that countries involved in such political crisis both cannot and do not manage their wildlife populations."
Many have also cited the ethics of killing elephants, which are believed to be highly intelligent. On Nov. 16, talk show host Ellen DeGeneres used her show to launch a campaign to benefit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Metro reports. She also used the moment to take a jab at President Donald Trump, whose sons are known wildlife hunters.
"Elephants show compassion, sympathy, social intelligence, self-awareness," DeGeneres said. "They're excellent at learning abilities -- all the things I have yet to see in this president."
Even Laura Ingraham, a Fox News host who supports Trump, was angered by the move.
"I don't understand how this move by Donald Trump Admin will not INCREASE the gruesome poaching of elephants," she wrote on Twitter. "Stay tuned."
Sources: ABC News (2), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Safari Club International, Los Angeles Times, Metro, Laura Ingraham/Twitter / Featured Image: Michelle Gadd/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr / Embedded Images: David Brossard/Flickr, Bernard DUPONT/Flickr