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Renewed US wildlife trophy imports divide conservationists

May 03, 2022
topics: Conservation
by: Cyril Zenda
located in: Zimbabwe, USA, Botswana, Zambia, Namibia
tags: poaching, trophy hunting, USA, wildlife conservation, Zimbabwe

The decision by the United States government to allow the import of some elephant trophies from Zimbabwe has rekindled the long-running debate between hunters and biodiversity experts over whether trophy hunting benefits or harms wildlife conservation, particularly endangered species like the African elephant.

In March, the United States’ Fish and Wildlife Service permitted some hunters to import elephant trophies; it was the first time in about five years that carcasses of animals killed in Africa have been allowed into the country.

The decision is a reversal of a ban on processing elephant trophy import permits that was put in place in November 2017 by the Trump administration. The reversal follows a September 2021 settlement with the Dallas Safari Club, a big-game hunting outfit that, in December 2019, challenged the Trump administration’s unilateral decision to stop trophy permit processing. 

Biden administration grapples with legacy issues

After the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the Fish and Wildlife Service reversed an Obama-era ban, allowing hunters to import elephant trophies from several African countries. This triggered furious reaction from conservationists, prompting Trump to announce on Twitter that the controversial decision would be put on hold. 

The agency immediately stopped processing all applications. Hunters then challenged this change of policy based on a mere tweet. It is this lawsuit - legacy issues that President Biden’s government is now dealing with - that resulted in the settlement allowing the processing of hunters’ import permits to resume. 

Under the settlement, the agency was required to process the permits of the 11 hunters named in the suit, as well as 73 other outstanding permit applications. With more than 300 other applications also waiting to be processed, anti-hunting groups are apprehensive this could result in an avalanche of wildlife trophies entering the US from Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and other African states that allow limited hunting of elephants for sport.

The case is part of a longstanding emotive dispute between hunters and biodiversity experts over whether trophy hunting harms or benefits wildlife conservation. 

‘No To Pay-To-Slay Tourism’

While safari hunters celebrated the move as a delayed victory on their part, this was not the case for wildlife conservation and animal welfare groups.

In the run-up to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision in March, the Centre for Biological Diversity and the Humane Society International wrote to the agency, urging it to discard the applications.

"With Africa’s elephants sliding toward extinction, the Biden administration shouldn’t give U.S. hunters the green light to import their heads, tusks and other trophies,” said Tanya Sanerib, international legal director at the Centre for Biological Diversity. “Obama started to curtail this practice, Trump was accused by trophy hunters of suspending it, and now Biden could finally end imports of the cruel trophies taken by killing these intelligent, imperilled animals."

Sarah Veatch, director of wildlife policy for Humane Society International said the compound threats of poaching, ivory trafficking and habitat destruction make this a simple ‘just say no’ moment for the Fish and Wildlife Service. 

"It is impossible to imagine a policy more dangerous to elephants than one that drives demand for their parts by allowing these imports just to indulge trophy hunters seeking to hang a head on their wall," Veatch said. "We count on our government to be a strong champion of elephants’ protection, not an enabler of pay-to-slay tourism that is driving them toward extinction."

The agency, however, went on to process eight of the applications, granting six and rejecting the other two. The six import permits are for trophies hunted in Zimbabwe. This decision did not sit down well with the anti-hunting lobby that felt that, based on his election campaign promises, Biden’s administration should not even have negotiated any settlement with the hunters. 

"We are disappointed that the government not only processed the applications but approved some of them even though we provided evidence as to why the permits should not have been granted," Veatch said in written responses to FairPlanet. "We will submit additional evidence to the government regarding the pending applications and are closely watching developments to assess our options." 

"We count on our government to be a strong champion of elephants’ protection, not an enabler of pay-to-slay tourism that is driving them toward extinction."

Does trophy hunting actually help conservation? 

Pieter Potgieter, president of Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa (PHASA), claims that the anti-hunting lobby is made up of people who are out of touch with the cruel realities in Africa.

"If people do not have to live with or amongst these animals, in this case elephants, they should not even have a voice," Potgieter told FairPlanet. "How do you comfort a rural black family that has just lost a child or had their whole food supply for the year destroyed by elephants? They can’t go to the local grocery store and buy it, they will starve until next season with no guarantee that it will not happen again." 

Potgieter said that while it is true that there are certain parts of Africa where some wildlife species are on the decline, this does not apply to southern Africa.

"People should get their facts straight and not try to protect animals at a specific level but on a specific population level. Southern Africa is overrun by elephants, as can be seen by the human-elephant conflict that is increasing," he said. "Botswana, for instance, has an estimated five times more elephants than their carrying capacity... What should they do with them?"

"Do not treat Africa as one country or its animals as one species," Potgieter added. "If there is a decline, let’s look at that specific population. Do not punish the continent, its people or the species in general." 

Potgieter pointed out that there is not a single animal species whose population decline the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) blames on trophy hunting.

Veatch said that scientists on the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group acknowledged regional differences in savannah elephant population sizes in their 2021 assessment of the species. 

"Nonetheless, their assessment is that the savannah elephant is endangered, and it is therefore considered to be facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild." 

According to the assessment, "Analysis of estimates from 334 localities across their global range indicates a reduction of more than 50 percent of the continental population in the past three generations (75 years) that is understood to be continuing and likely irreversible."

Traders highlight arguments for trophy hunting 

Godfrey Harris, the managing director of the Los Angels-based Ivory Education Institute, told FairPlanet that wildlife conservation groups opposed to hunting are in fact run by people who "are dedicated to the belief that man has no right to use wildlife for his benefit; that as a sentient beings with feelings and emotions [that] all animals have rights equal to man’s and deserve equal treatment to man in their habitats." 

"Nice theory, and good for fund-raising among pet-loving inhabitants in comfortable urban settings in Western cities, but totally impractical in terms of the realities of African life," Harris wrote to FairPlanet.

He emphasised that wildlife in Africa is now confined to defined spaces in wildlife preserves, on private farms and in national parks - spaces that remain static in size while the populations of unmanaged wildlife are exploding. "The overcrowding in southern African habitats, particularly of elephants, is causing suffering and deteriorating conditions for all wildlife," said Harris, whose organisation is a strong backer of the Sustainable Use Coalition, a group of non-governmental organisations under the leadership of Eugene Lapointe, the former Secretary General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). 

"Hunting is just one of several ways to limit population growth to solve overcrowding. It should continue, not only because it reduces populations and culls animals that are not crucial to long-term needs of the herd, but because the license fees fund other conservation measures."

Does trophy hunting help communities? 

African governments have always argued that bans on trophy imports by some western countries put a huge strain on conservation efforts as they sever the much-needed flow of money paid in hunting fees, which keep hunting areas in Africa open and animals protected by anti-poaching squads

It has also been argued that trophy animals, such as lions and elephants, can be pests in many African communities, devouring livestock and crops - sometimes even killing human beings - thereby necessitating the need for paid conservation through hunts and the exportation of trophies and other related products.

"Trophy hunting brings much needed revenue to rural areas with often no other source of income or employment for the local communities," PHASA’s Potgieter said. "The false belief that photo tourism can replace trophy hunting in these areas is absolutely nonsense. Tourists want to be closer to infrastructure and have lots of animals to see and photograph, which is not the case in rural hunting areas. The carbon footprint of photo safaris versus hunting safaris is also much higher."

"Trophy hunting brings much needed revenue to rural areas with often no other source of income or employment for the local communities."

‘Punished for successful conservation efforts’

In March 2019, the leaders of Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Zambia met in Botswana for the Kasane Elephant Summit, where they discussed their common problem of elephant overpopulation

The general sentiment in these countries, which have the largest herds of elephants and other wild animals in the world, is that by being denied the right to trade in the products of some of these animals under CITES, they are in effect being punished for the success of their conservation efforts. 

"Clearly, banning trophies is a backdoor way to try to limit hunting, just as the recent effort in CITES to stop the spread of zoonotic diseases by ending wildlife trade was a backdoor attempt to interfere with a major source of income to African states," Harris of the Ivory Education Institute added.

But Veatch of Humane Society International does not agree with the charge raised by the African leaders. "Only a few leaders of African countries have made this claim and they are wrong: no one is stopping them from exporting wildlife," she said. "Rather, sovereign nations, such as the US, are exercising their right to stop imports of wildlife into their countries."

“A 2022 poll demonstrates that 82 percent of Americans oppose the trophy hunting and import of elephants and lions," she added.
"More than 75 percent of Americans oppose trophy hunting altogether. Stopping elephant trophy imports is not only right, it’s what Americans want." 

Trophy hunting bans remove community ownership

As the two sides tussle, African governments and their rural communities remain hopeful that their voices would not be shut out.

Chieftainess Rebecca Banika from Botswana’s elephant-rich Chobe District recently pleaded with the international community not to effect a ban on trophy hunting.

"If the international community continues to make calls to ban international hunting, my community will suffer a lot because we don’t have any other income besides money from international hunting," Chieftainess Banika told the media. 

"My community will suffer starvation because the meat that they freely get from the carcass of hunted wildlife will stop. If the ban on international hunting happens, the community will revert to poaching because the ban would remove ownership and direct benefits from international hunting," Banika added. "Therefore, we are still urging the international community to listen to the plight of the communities living with the wild animals as they have better knowledge of how to conserve their wildlife than any other person outside Africa."

Fulton Mangwanya, director general of the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, said it was sad that laws and policies on African wildlife species are made far away from Africa and without input from the affected people. 

"Our generation has witnessed unprecedented decimation of wildlife and habitat due to a misguided mentality that non-consumptive tourism - such as photography safaris - is a panacea for all conservation and sustainable financial requirements. It is not."

Image by Bisakha Datta

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Author
Zimbabwe USA Botswana Zambia Namibia
“It is impossible to imagine a policy more dangerous to elephants than one that drives demand for their parts by allowing these imports just to indulge trophy hunters seeking to hang a head on their wall.”
© Peopleimages/Getty Images
“The overcrowding in southern African habitats, particularly of elephants, is causing suffering and deteriorating conditions for all wildlife.”
© David Silverman/Getty Images
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