America's stance on elephant trophies? It's complicated

To look at, they're what most would call elephant tusks, ears or tails.Inside the culture of big game hunting,...

Posted: Jan 8, 2018 12:17 PM
Updated: Jan 8, 2018 12:17 PM

To look at, they're what most would call elephant tusks, ears or tails.

Inside the culture of big game hunting, they're called trophies: animal parts valued as prizes gained during the hunt.

Gruesome symbols of death to some. Treasured souvenirs by others.

And right now, the United States isn't sure what to do with them. President Trump, facing the biggest decision of its kind in years, must determine whether elephant tusks and other body parts can be legally imported into the United States from Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Traditionally, the United States has allowed trophies to be imported only if countries proved hunting would not harm the overall population of the endangered species. But Zambia and Zimbabwe were found to fall short of that guideline, and elephant trophies from those nations were banned from the United States.

Last November, President Trump's administration moved to change that rule. It has led to a legal and political standoff pitting hunting advocates against animal rights groups, and it has put the Trump family's stance on big game hunting under scrutiny.

It also has contributed to the heated, emotional debate about the business of big game conservation, and whether hunting should be a part of it.

Animal rights groups are outraged the practice is allowed at all.

But hunting advocates say the big game trade can save elephants and other endangered species when profits are used to responsibly manage herds in ways that increase animal populations.

The ban

It all started nearly four years ago, when the Obama administration banned elephant trophy imports from Zambia and Zimbabwe, saying the countries failed to provide the adequate proof.

Last November the US Fish and Wildlife Service said it was lifting the ban, saying the countries had improved their conservation programs so hunts "will enhance the survival of the African elephant."

But after a public outcry, President Trump tweeted he would "Put big game trophy decision on hold until such time as I review all conservation facts," adding, "Under study for years. Will update soon with Secretary [of Interior Ryan] Zinke. Thank you!"

Nearly two months after the President's tweet, CNN asked the Department of the Interior about the status of the review, and a spokesperson responded: "President Trump and Secretary Zinke have met on this subject and there will be no new permits granted for elephant trophies for Zimbabwe or Zambia."

"This will remain in place until the Department of the Interior has completed a comprehensive review and the President has made a determination based upon their recommendations," the spokesman said.

Despite multiple requests for comment, White House officials declined to say whether the review is ongoing, when it might conclude, or when the President's decision may be announced.

A challenge in court

Meanwhile hunting advocates and animal rights groups are both claiming victory in a case challenging the ban before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a split ruling the court upheld the ban while litigation continues, saying the Fish and Wildlife Service was within its rights to implement the prohibition. But at the same time the court scolded the government for failing to conduct a federally mandated public review of the impact of the rule before enacting it.

It sent that part of the case back to a lower court with orders to tell the Fish and Wildlife Service to come up with rules to implement the old ban.

US Humane Society Attorney Anna Frostic told CNN the ruling is a win because the "D.C. Circuit opinion completely upheld the decision on the substantive grounds." She added that, "the federal government must carefully consider the science demonstrating that trophy hunting negatively impacts the conservation of imperiled species," before changing rules already in place.

That means the November decision suspending the Obama era ban may not be in compliance under this ruling, because it failed to follow those same public comment requirements.

An attorney for Safari Club International, a hunting advocacy group that along with the National Rifle Association filed the suit in 2014, said, "The court did not expressly set aside the findings, nor did it uphold them." The group says it is waiting to see how the district court rules before deciding its next steps.

In a statement to supporters claiming victory, Safari Club International said it believes the ruling will allow hunters' voices to be heard during "the process of decision-making that affects the importation of legally hunted wildlife." The club added the government "will not be able to impose uninformed, abrupt importation bans, like it did in 2014."

How we got here

In November, when word leaked out that the Trump administration was preparing to reverse the ban, conservationists sounded alarms. Among them: Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the US Humane Society, who argued that elephant hunting is "just thrill killing, bragging rights, trophies for a threatened species, the largest land animal in the world." Pacella said "shooting an elephant is like shooting a parked car. I mean there's no sport in it either."

But a November statement from the US Fish and Wildlife Service disagreed, saying in part, "legal, well-regulated sport hunting as part of a sound management program can benefit the conservation of certain species by providing incentives to local communities to conserve the species and by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation."

Connection to President Trump's game-hunting son

The Fish and wildlife Service is overseen by the Department of the Interior, which is run by Zinke. In fact, Zinke's appointment was championed by President Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., an avid big game hunter.

In 2011, Trump Jr. and brother Eric Trump were photographed posing with their kills, including an elephant, during a hunting trip to Zimbabwe. In one picture, Trump Jr. is seen holding the dead elephant's severed tail. The photos first appeared on Gothamist.

When Trump Jr. addressed the photos at the time, he did not deny their authenticity, saying, "I can assure you it was not wasteful." Adding on Twitter, "The villagers were so happy for the meat which they don't often get to eat."

How does Trump really feel about big game hunting?

Even then, there were signs that future President Donald Trump and his sons had different opinions on the issue. In a 2012 interview Trump told Extra, "Everybody tells me what they did in the world of hunting is fine. But I'm not a fan."

In November, the President made clear his opinion on the killings had not changed, tweeting 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."

From 2007 to 2014, elephant populations in the African savanna plummeted 30%, according to the Great Elephant Census, a two-year study that mapped and tracked elephant herds across 18 countries.

In some places elephant populations have dropped at higher rates, primarily due to ivory poaching. And experts now say about 350,000 remain, down from an estimated 1 million as recently as the 1970s, and a potential 20 million that roamed the region before Africa was colonized by European countries.

Animal rights activists also point out that elephant trophies are still allowed to be imported from other countries in Africa, and note that other activities like selling elephant hides or other elephant parts are still considered legal -- and many can be imported into the United States with proper permits from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 312712

Reported Deaths: 7223
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto21445257
Hinds20264414
Harrison17785308
Rankin13548278
Jackson13401246
Madison10055217
Lee9959173
Jones8361163
Forrest7638152
Lauderdale7191240
Lowndes6361144
Lamar620686
Lafayette6164118
Washington5318133
Bolivar4796132
Oktibbeha460698
Panola4550105
Pearl River4493145
Marshall4393103
Warren4371121
Pontotoc419372
Monroe4089133
Union408876
Neshoba4022176
Lincoln3944110
Hancock376886
Leflore3487125
Sunflower335590
Tate332084
Pike3290105
Scott314973
Alcorn311268
Yazoo310269
Itawamba299277
Copiah296065
Coahoma293979
Simpson293888
Tippah287468
Prentiss278960
Marion268780
Leake265573
Wayne262241
Adams261882
Grenada260085
Covington256281
George246748
Newton246161
Winston226881
Tishomingo225467
Jasper220748
Attala214173
Chickasaw206957
Holmes188672
Clay184654
Stone181833
Clarke177879
Tallahatchie177840
Calhoun169732
Yalobusha162936
Smith162134
Walthall133845
Greene130333
Lawrence128323
Montgomery126742
Noxubee126734
Perry125838
Amite122842
Carroll121728
Webster114532
Jefferson Davis106932
Tunica104626
Claiborne102230
Benton99025
Humphreys96133
Kemper95328
Franklin83423
Quitman79916
Choctaw76018
Wilkinson66830
Jefferson65428
Sharkey50217
Issaquena1686
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 529446

Reported Deaths: 10930
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson763031516
Mobile40850804
Madison34622501
Tuscaloosa25701451
Montgomery24289585
Shelby23367247
Baldwin21035307
Lee15822169
Calhoun14469313
Morgan14266279
Etowah13806352
Marshall12185222
Houston10533280
Elmore10029205
Limestone9948150
Cullman9640193
St. Clair9589239
Lauderdale9407239
DeKalb8814185
Talladega8199175
Walker7214277
Autauga6914108
Jackson6801111
Blount6635136
Colbert6288134
Coffee5498117
Dale4820111
Russell438438
Chilton4258111
Franklin424782
Covington4111117
Tallapoosa4004150
Escambia393076
Chambers3555123
Dallas3543151
Clarke350661
Marion3105100
Pike310177
Lawrence299798
Winston273672
Bibb260463
Marengo249064
Geneva247676
Pickens233659
Barbour230756
Hale222276
Butler215869
Fayette212062
Henry188744
Cherokee184145
Randolph179241
Monroe177040
Washington167039
Macon158850
Clay155156
Crenshaw151957
Cleburne148341
Lamar141534
Lowndes138553
Wilcox126729
Bullock122941
Conecuh110129
Perry107526
Coosa106928
Sumter104332
Greene92334
Choctaw60424
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Clear
66° wxIcon
Hi: 76° Lo: 49°
Feels Like: 66°
Columbus
Clear
65° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 51°
Feels Like: 65°
Oxford
Clear
63° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 46°
Feels Like: 63°
Starkville
Clear
63° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 48°
Feels Like: 63°
We can expect plentiful sunshine Thursday with nice, warm temperatures. But going into the late afternoon and early evening, a brief disturbance could bring a quick round of showers and perhaps a thunderstorm through the area.
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather