The Trump administration has lifted an Obama-era ban on importing elephant trophies taken from African countries like Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a notice in the Federal Register that would have lifted a ban on elephant trophy imports on November 17, 2017. But President Trump reversed the decision the same day due to public outcry.
While this rumor is based in truth, there’s a lot of misunderstanding surrounding it. The issue of trophy elephant imports actually spans three administrations, and the Bush and Obama administration never made a final determination on it.
Under the Bush administration, the Fish & Wildlife Service first requested information from Zimbabwean officials about elephant management practices in 2007. The information, which was supposed to help guide U.S. policy on trophy elephant imports, was never fully provided. Still lacking sufficient information, the Obama administration issued a ban on elephant trophy imports in April 2014 (more on that below).
The Fish & Wildlife Service continued to collect needed information throughout Obama’s presidency after the 2014 ban. The apparent goal was for the agency to gather enough information to make a long-awaited decision on trophy elephant imports. And, in November 2017, the Fish & Wild Life Service reported that it had finally achieved that goal (more on that below). Under the notice, hunters could apply for import permits for elephant trophies harvested between January 2016 and December 2018. Trump later tweeted, however, that the ban was put on hold while conservation facts were reviewed.
Fish & Wildlife Service spent years under the Obama administration hashing out U.S. policy on trophy elephant and ivory imports. And, due to lack of available information from African countries, key decisions were never made.
The Obama administration’s 2014 notice banning trophy elephant imports wasn’t based on conservation information or the impact of trophy imports on elephant populations in Africa. Rather, the 2014 ban was primarily issued due to insufficient information about those topics, the notice states:
The decision to suspend importation of African elephant trophies taken in Zimbabwe was due primarily to the Service having insufficient information on the status of elephants in Zimbabwe and the current management program in Zimbabwe to determine that the killing of the animal whose trophy is intended for import into the United States would enhance the survival of the species.
Despite “significant attention” paid to African elephant conservation issues in recent years, there was very limited information available about key aspects. Specifically, information was needed about an elephant management program that hadn’t been updated since the 1990s. Additional Information about efforts to control poaching, and the impact of legal hunting in Zimbabwe, would also be needed to make a decision, the 2014 notice states.
It should be noted that the Obama administration banned most ivory imports under a separate order in 2015. Additionally, that order required a permit for all elephant trophy imports in response to rampant poaching. Under the November 2017 Trump notice, big game hunters would have been required to apply for a permit for trophy imports, which aligns with the 2015 Obama order.
After the temporary 2014 ban was issued, the Fish & Wildlife Service continued to secure information that was requested from African officials throughout Obama’s time in office. In its November 2017 notice, the Fish & Wildlife Service document how Zimbabwe had provided information bit-by-bit from 2014 through early 2017.
From 2014-2016, the agency received requested information from Zimbabwean officials about hunting quotas for different regions and anti-poaching initiatives. Then, in January 2016, a new Zimbabwe National Elephant Management Plan was finalized. Following a November 2016 meeting with Zimbabwean officials and the EMP, additional information was provided:
The EMP incorporates an adaptive management framework with higher level targets, with key components, strategic objectives, and outputs. Each key component has management actions that can be measured and verified through “Key Performance Indicators.” A set deadline for each action was identified. These measurable provisions allow ZPWMA to monitor the success of the new management plan and, through an adaptive management approach, address newly emerging concerns and long-term management needs.
Based on all that information, the Fish & Wildlife Service concluded in the November 2017 order that hunting elephants would ultimately “enhance the survival” of herds in Africa. The idea is that revenues from big game hunts could be use to support larger conservation practices. In other words, the agency ruled it was an effective conservation management practice. The notice also established a new framework to review import permit applications:
In reviewing each application received for import of such specimens, the Service evaluates the information provided in the application, as well as other information available to the Service on the status of the elephant population and the management program for elephants in the country to ensure that the program is promoting the conservation of the species. Each application to import sport-hunted elephant trophies must also meet all other applicable permitting requirements before it may be authorized. This determination does not affect previous determinations by the Service regarding trophy animals taken before January 21, 2016.
In summary, the Trump administration lifted a 2014 ban on elephant trophy imports in November 2017, but the decision was later reversed. That’s why we’re calling this one “truth” and “outdated.”
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