Trophy hunting: A matter of common decency

Poaching is a massive conservation problem in African nations, especially regarding elephants. In an effort to cooperate with legal measures being taken to curb illegal hunting, the United States, along with the majority of the international community, banned the import of ivory products (As noted by the Washington Post, ivory products are made from elephant tusks and are a coveted commodity for poachers). The Obama administration took this one step further in 2014 and banned the import of all trophies from elephant hunting. Under the Trump administration, however, it was recently announced the ban would be reversed so that non-ivory related parts of carcasses, or “trophies” from elephants killed in Zambia and Zimbabwe may  be allowed into the U.S. again.

As explained by Vox News, if the ban were allowed to go into effect, it would mean that starting in 2018, hunters could apply for permits to bring back trophies from hunting expeditions in Zambia and Zimbabwe. Public condemnation of this reversal was swift due to the fact that African elephants are still protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

The controversy began when officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a statement on Nov. 14 claiming that the measure would be taken because elephant trophy hunting in Zimbabwe  would help the species prosper worldwide.

A loophole in the Endangered Species Act is if the species will be benefitted by hunting, then animal  carcasses can be imported and traded in limited amounts. The idea behind this is that the money hunters spend to legally hunt elephants will be used for conservation and benefit a species more than not hunting it at all. The statement announcing the bans repeal has been taken down “for updating,” but the context of it is important.

Beyond conservation there may be ulterior motives, as there often are in these situations. It is arguable whether a U.S. agency devoted to North American wildlife is even qualified to make assertions about the well-being of African elephants in the first place, and it is worth noting that groups like the National Rifle Association and Safari Club International have lobbied hard for this kind of action. They stand to profit from increased hunting, moral or immoral, and that alone should disqualify their involvement in this matter. Unfortunately, it does not.

To President Trump’s credit, he tweeted that he would delay the decision on “this horror show” (the import of trophies) until further notice. This was only after public outcry, however, and I doubt that he was entirely unaware of the opinions of the Fish and Wildlife Service. It has also been a priority of his administration to reverse hunting regulations—such as rolling back policies meant to hinder the import of lion trophies, a move that received  little attention aside, according to the Washington Post.

According to the Washington Post, 70 percent of hunters who apply for permits to hunt elephants are U.S. citizens, and they pay up to $20,000 for the permits.  Money does not buy legitimate rights, however, and there is something unsettling about U.S. citizens being so determined to shoot and harvest the carcasses of peaceful animals on another continent— a continent that has had to take great measures to try to protect those species from poachers in the first place.

The argument does exist that legal hunting is not the same as poaching— and it certainly is not— but in the case of endangered species,  a dead animal is a dead animal, and no permit can compensate the loss of another critically numbered life. It would be nice to think that poachers would step aside for legal hunters, for the betterment of the species, but that is not realistic, and adding to the body count, permit or not, is counterproductive.

Trophy imports are currently allowed from Namibia and South Africa. Zambia was also given the green light recently to import trophies. The controversy centers mostly on Zimbabwe,  a country currently locked in political instability and lacking a positive track record of transparency in illegal trading of resources. According to the Washington Post, for example,  Charles Jonga,  the director of Campfire, a group in Zimbabwe that manages animal hunting, criticized “animal welfare lobbyists who have nothing to show for their misplaced belief that they can dictate to African rural communities how they should share their living space with wildlife.”

That program’s revenue, it must be noted, fell from $2 million a year before the ban in 2014 to $1.73 million last year, giving the group a financial interest in perpetuating the slaughter of elephants.

Jonga seems to have much more in mind than the interest of wildlife conservation. His complaint about animal welfare activists dictating how African communities treat wildlife is a little ironic considering that he is more than willing to let U.S. dollars facilitate the slaughter of that native wildlife for mere sport.

The only way to justify elephant trophy hunting as a conservation effort is to jump through hoops and shape the narrative to suit that end. This does not change the reality of the situation. Allowing trophy hunting of endangered elephants fosters an illegal ivory trade that is still not under control and one that has been hugely problematic for African nations.  As the Washington Post  points out, it also undercuts the success of tourism in the economies of Zambia and Zimbabwe, where more and more people have recently been paying to see elephants rather than shoot them (for example, Botswana outlawed elephant trophy hunting several years ago for this reason).

Besides, trophy hunting is essentially only affordable for obscenely wealthy Americans, and the idea of rich Western tourists exploiting the endangered resources of developing countries should leave a bad taste in the mouth of anyone who understands the effects of colonialism on African nations.

I want to believe that wrong actions are still simply wrong, and no amount of muddying the water changes that. Very few Americans are openly supportive of lifting the ban on elephant trophy imports from Zambia or Zimbabwe. In fact, most Americans do not have the money or desire to take part in trophy hunting in the first place. For once, this administration should let common decency rule the day, and protect the elephants that are, by law and necessity, protected.