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By Rachel Nuwer

March 7, 2018

The United States has moved to allow hunters to import big-game trophies, including elephant tusks and lion hides, acquired in certain African countries with approvals granted on an individual basis.

The decision, reported in a memorandum published last week by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, overturns an Obama-era ban on some trophies and contradicts public statements by President Trump, who had endorsed the restrictions.

In November, agency officials moved to lift the ban on elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia. The new policy supersedes and broadens that decision, officials said.

Traditionally, the agency has considered imports of trophies from certain endangered species on a nation-by-nation basis. The Endangered Species Act stipulates that in order for such trophies to be approved, exporting countries must demonstrate that hunting enhances survival of a particular species in the wild — by reinvesting the money into conservation, for example, and by supporting local communities.

In December, however, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found that officials had implemented the Obama-era bans without following regulatory procedures, including a failure to open up the decision to public comment.

To accommodate that court decision, officials said the Fish and Wildlife Service will change how it evaluates imports for certain endangered species across Africa — not just elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia, the subject of the circuit court ruling.

Rather than evaluate lion, elephant and bontebok (a type of antelope) trophies on a nation-by-nation basis, the agency now will consider imports of these animals from six African countries on case-by-case basis, as it already does with the majority of species hunted on the continent.

The six countries are Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. The new policy does not mean that all trophies will be automatically permitted, officials said. The applicants will have to meet the same conservation and sustainability requirements as before.

The decision was long sought by Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association, which had filed the lawsuit against the agency.

“We were surprised as anyone when they came out with that announcement last week, but we think it’s a positive step,” said Richard Parsons, chief executive of Safari Club International. “As much as some people have a distaste for hunting, in southern Africa it actually works and is very positive for wildlife conservation.”

Whether safari hunting ultimately helps or harms fragile animal populations is a controversial question.

Hunting organizations point out that big-game sportsmen — who may pay $100,000 or more per hunt to shoot a lion or elephant — can provide indispensable funding for conservation.

“I’ve been in this business a long time and listened to a lot of animal-rights organizations that talk loudly about how they’re going to save rhinos and elephants, but we’re the ones putting money on the ground to make it happen,” Mr. Parsons said. “We think the Fish and Wildlife Service is on the right track to make solid decisions for elephant conservation.”

But conservation groups argue that alternatives should be pursued, especially when the quarry are endangered species.

“These are animals that our country has decided we’re going to protect, and we should all get to have a say in their protection,” said Elly Pepper, deputy director of the wildlife trade initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“The decision regarding whether someone’s allowed to shoot an endangered species shouldn’t be made behind closed doors.”

The agency previously made determinations about trophies publicly available, she said, but under the new system interested parties will have to file a Freedom of Information request to see details of case-by-case trophy hunting permits. Each request can take months to process.

Others share Ms. Pepper’s concerns. “These decisions are all going to be made in the dark, and this new case-by-case approach doesn’t give anyone comfort that these animals will be protected in the way the previous system did,” said Kitty Block, acting president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States.

“We think this is a one-sided attempt to appease a constituency that favors hunting.”

Ms. Block noted that the latest decision marks departure from President Trump’s public comments about big-game trophy hunting.

Following the November announcement that the United States would begin accepting elephant trophy imports from Zimbabwe and Zambia, Mr. Trump tweeted that he planned to reverse that decision and that he would be “very hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of elephants or any other animal.”

“Nothing’s changed since then,” Ms. Block said. “The elephant populations haven’t come back, there hasn’t been a slowdown in poaching or corruption — all these issues remain.”

While the agency’s new criteria are effective immediately, the circuit court must now determine whether or not the case-by-case approach is an acceptable solution.

This means the decision to allow certain trophy imports “isn’t a done deal,” Ms. Pepper said. “When the ban was first lifted last year, the public expressed a lot of anguish, and it seemed to work for reversing that decision.”

Regardless of the final decision, Jan Stander, director of Phundundu Wildlife Park in Zimbabwe, said the lifting of the trophy bans is “too little, too late.”

“Zimbabwe’s lost around half a million hectares of wildlife land since the trophy ban in 2014,” he said. “It’s all gone over to cattle and agriculture.”

Mr. Stander and his colleagues had relied on fees paid by American hunters to run their anti-poaching units, maintain roads and support communities living around the reserve.

But following President Obama’s trophy ban, Mr. Stander had to drop his prices for lion hunts from $130,000 to $25,000. Elephant hunts, which he once marketed for $80,000, “I couldn’t even give away,” he said.

In the year following the ban, Mr. Stander said he lost $500,000 and was forced to close the nearly 80,000-acre reserve for lack of business. Populations of elephant, buffalo, lion and leopard have since dwindled as poachers have moved in.

“I should have left three years ago, but this is an area that’s close to my heart,” he said.

Ecotourists, he added, will not save the day. They disappeared years ago, scared away by the country’s political turmoil.

“The only reason there’s still wildlife here in Zimbabwe today is because of hunting and the amount of money it brings in,” he said. “I’m on the conservation side, but I was using the hunters and trophy fees to keep the conservation going.”

“Commercially, we’re dead,” he added.

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