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What the Ban on Elephant Trophies Means

Days after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a decision to lift the ban on elephant trophy imports from Zimbabwe and Zambia, President Donald Trump has announced he plans to reverse course.

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Two elephants walk amid dry brush as they search for food at the Tsavo West National Park in southern Kenya.

President Donald Trump tweeted Friday night that he was keeping the ban on importing game trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia, reversing his administration’s announcement two days earlier that the bans would be lifted. The issuing of import permits for elephant trophies from those two countries has now been put on hold, says Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.

When the decision to lift the ban was announced on Wednesday at a Safari Club International event in Tanzania, it was met with an avalanche of criticism. Several years earlier, under President Barack Obama, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned the import of elephant trophies from certain countries because the service found that the hunts did not contribute to the survival of the species.

Because African elephants are listed as threatened on the Endangered Species Act, the law requires that import of any elephant or elephant parts must somehow contribute to their conservation in the wild. There were—and remain—serious concerns about whether proceeds from elephant hunts in Zimbabwe and Zambia actually go to conserving and protecting the species, as big-game hunters claim.

But elephant populations in Zimbabwe have declined 11 percent since 2005, and as much as 74 percent in some parts of the country, in large part because of poaching for ivory. Zambia has seen smaller declines, but poaching remains a problem there as well.

Trophy hunters argue that their hunting and safari fees, which can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars per trip, go back into the communities that live near the animals, thus providing an incentive for local people to protect wildlife.

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“From Charles Darwin and John James Audubon to Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway, the most enlightened hunters have long viewed themselves as naturalists and conservationists, committed to sustainability among animal populations and the preservation of wild places where they stalk game,” Michael Paterniti wrote in our recent story “Should We Kill Animals to Save Them?

However, said the African Wildlife Foundation in a statement, "Trophy hunting can only be an effective tool for conservation when decisions are transparent, and the necessary resources are available to ensure hunting is properly managed." That has not been the case in these recent decisions, they argue.

Opponents of trophy hunting say fees often don’t make it back into the communities. Some critics say it is ethically wrong to kill wildlife for sport. Many argue that trophy hunting should not be allowed for species facing serious threats from poaching, including elephants, rhinos, and lions.

“There’s a real concern that legal hunting of elephants provides cover for illegal hunting. When trucks, guns, and hunters are allowed on the landscape, rangers don’t know who’s who,” says Tanya Sanerib at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Unless and until the Zimbabwe import decision is officially rescinded or revoked, elephants are at risk and we’ll do everything we can to fight that decision."

Relatedly, Fish and Wildlife Service quietly began issuing permits last month for hunters to bring home lion trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia, ABC News reported, also reversing an Obama-era ban. The government is not required to give public notice when such a decision is made.

While the findings that trophy hunting enhances the survival of these species still stand, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said in a press release that Fish and Wildlife Service will put the issuing of import permits on hold, following Trump’s tweet Friday.

"President Trump and I have talked and both believe that conservation and healthy herds are critical,” he said. “As a result, in a manner compliant with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations, the issuing of permits is being put on hold as the decision is being reviewed."

It is unclear whether Zinke is reviewing the elephant decision only or the lion decision as well.

Read more stories about wildlife crime and exploitation on National Geographic’s Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.