US Fish and Wildlife Service makes contentious choice to lift trophy ban

The first week of March came with a decision by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to allow select imports of wildlife hunting trophies, such as elephant tusks or the hides of other animals, from six countries in Africa.

The decision followed a December 2017 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which overturned restrictions on importing elephant trophies set by former President Barack Obama’s administration.

These restrictions limited hunters from bringing in their trophies into the United States from endangered animals, unless the nation from which the trophies came from could make a strong case that the hunting actually helped conservation efforts and supported the economies of nearby communities.

Needless to say, this decision puts the endangered African wildlife at greater risk of decline, as hunters have renewed motivation to kill animals for sport and profit.

However, the issue of whether legal hunting in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia should be restricted is more complicated than both conservationists and hunting fans may realize. “Hunters pay $65,000 to $140,000 to hunt lions in Zimbabwe, for example; an elephant hunt can run $36,000 to $70,000,” an article  in The New York Times stated.

These prices could be raised with more relaxed regulations on hunting trophy imports. A big portion of this price tag is meant to be returned back for wildlife conservation efforts, such as the 83 conservancies located in Namibia that regulate tourism and wildlife hunting in the southern African country.

This is a slightly better alternative to poaching — the illegal capture and hunting of wild animals — but it is borderline hypocritical that many conservation groups believe the best way to save an endangered species is to hunt that species before poachers can.

A second caveat of the USFWS decision is that it is not a complete rejection of the regulations set by the Obama administration, but rather an amendment to them.

The memorandum published by the federal agency on the topic said, “As part of the permitting process, the Service reviews each application received for import of such trophies and evaluates the information provided in the application as well as other information available to the Service as to the status of and management program for the species or population to ensure that the program is promoting the conservation of the species.”

This means the biggest change is that the United States will now look at hunting permit applications on an individual, rather than a nation-by-nation basis.

Whether this will make it easier for hunters to get their applications accepted is hard to say, but it is worrisome that the protection of endangered species is now in the hands of the people who support legal hunting; the issue is aggravated since any details about the hunters that are allowed to import trophies are no longer public record, according to Elly Pepper, the deputy director of the wildlife trade initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Whichever policies the United States or the countries in which hunting takes place decides to create, the protection and well-being of animals should always be a large deciding factor.

Even if big-game hunting cannot be stopped completely due to economic or conservation reasons, the activity needs to be strictly regulated so that the money does indeed go back to the wildlife conservancies and the local communities.

Easing the restrictions on hunting-trophy imports should not result in hunters mass slaughtering a species or allowing the money that they paid to hunt to go into the pockets of the rich elites or wildlife traffickers.

Once a species is extinct, there is no going back. The only way to stop this from happening is by coming together and collectively holding hunting enthusiasts accountable for their effects on a species’ declining population.