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U.S. lifts ban on some elephant trophy imports

© Jon McCormack

Editor’s note: An update to this story: On Nov. 17, 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump reversed the government’s decision to permit the import of some elephant trophies. The decision is on hold pending a review, news outlets reported.

On Wednesday, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump announced that the remains of legally hunted elephants in two African countries can be imported into the United States.

The move, which reverses a ban established in 2014 under the Obama administration, pertains to elephants killed in Zambia and neighboring Zimbabwe in southern Africa. In an informal statement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that the money paid for permits to hunt the animals — listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act — could put “much-needed revenue back into conservation,” The Washington Post reported.

Some conservation groups painted a different picture, expressing grave concerns about the effect of the move on the global effort to stem the ivory trade, which has fueled organized crime networks around the world and caused populations of the iconic animals to plummet across the continent.

“This is the wrong move at the wrong time for protecting Africa’s wildlife,” said M. Sanjayan, CEO of Conservation International. “It is baffling that this action would be a priority at this time.”

Calling the Trump administration’s move “highly disturbing,” Sanjayan was sharply critical of the reasoning behind it.

“The original ban was enacted based on detailed findings on the condition of elephant populations on the ground, and it strains credulity to suggest that local science-based factors have been met to justify this change,” he said. “What’s more, this move sends a dangerous signal to poachers and to our allies about the commitment of the United States to ending the trade in ivory and endangered animal products.”

The past few years have seen seismic shifts against the ivory trade and the poaching that fuels it. In recent months, China and the United Kingdom — two of the world’s largest ivory importers — have announced plans to close their markets. Meanwhile, countries across Africa — from Gabon to Botswana — have committed to closing their own ivory markets and have taken steps to reduce or eliminate their ivory stockpiles.

Yet the trade endures, and in places that some might not expect: According to a report released earlier this year, none other than Washington, D.C., was judged to be the seat of the ivory trade in the United States. Recent crackdowns on markets in California and New York, the report found, simply pushed it elsewhere.

Meanwhile, an African elephant is killed for its tusks every 15 minutes.

The rule change applies to elephants shot in Zimbabwe starting in January 2016, and to those legally permitted to be hunted before the end of next year, the Post reported, and a similar rule has been put into place for Zambia.

The change will not be official until a notice is formally filed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a move expected to occur later this week. By regulation, the service must show that importing hunted trophies will enhance the conservation success of African elephants in the wild, an analysis sure to be scrutinized by conservationists. A broader ban by the United States on ivory sales appears to remain intact.

Sanjayan called upon the government to rethink its action and to allow the public to weigh in on the ban. “I urge the Trump administration to reconsider this decision with full public comment and participation,” he said.

Bruno Vander Velde is CI’s editorial director.

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