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We Can Conserve Elephants Without Hunting Them


As of January 1, China – the world’s largest market for elephant ivory – has banned the import or trade of ivory in the country. There has also been a lot of commentary regarding the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to resume Zimbabwe elephant hunting trophy imports. I feel that commentary is missing important perspectives. I was the USFWS Director who approved the 2014 import ban.

The original action is portrayed as “an Obama Administration ban.” It was not. Yes, it was put in place during his Administration, but it was recommended to me by career experts implementing the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). It reflected their independent assessment of conditions in Zimbabwe. We briefed then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, and made the announcement supported by the robust communications plan that she demanded.  President Obama was never involved. 

Similarly, the recent decision reversing the Zimbabwe ban was not a Trump Administration action. It resulted from analysis by the very same career experts. Associating specific regulatory actions to Presidents Obama or Trump ascribes political motivation where there was none. When the USFWS, or any regulatory agency makes decisions, they must be independent, objective, scientific and professional. The integrity of the institution is essential.

USFWS actions are guided by laws and regulations. They follow them. Their global reputation is exceptional, which has made our nation the world leader in wildlife conservation. 

Like it or not, the ESA, and regulations written and implemented by Republican and Democratic administrations alike, recognizes “regulated taking” (i.e., hunting) as conservation. For decades, the USFWS has permitted import of hunting trophies from endangered and threatened species – including elephants – based on findings that hunting revenues support conservation of the larger population.  This policy requires that USFWS career professionals implement the law without imposing their personal values, and without political influence.

That said, experts are not infallible, especially when working under tight deadlines, and the recent announcement was poorly timed, unscripted, and unsupported by sufficient information. The initial announcement was made by the Safari Club, which is unsettling, raises concerns about impartiality, and warrants skepticism. The President was clearly blindsided by the swift and bipartisan public condemnation.  His reaction, imposing a hold and requesting further review, is understandable.  But he went further, questioning the conservation value and moral footing of trophy hunting of “Elephants and other animals.”

Unquestionably, well-regulated hunting has been a cornerstone for wildlife conservation in the U.S. But, despite the world’s best framework for regulating hunting, endangered species are not hunted in our own country. Species hunted historically, like alligator, grizzly bear, wolf, and whooping crane, are protected from hunting if listed as endangered or threatened. The USFWS has attempted to make a case for “conservation hunting” of listed species here at home, and its arguments have been soundly rejected by U.S. courts. So, if elephants were native to the U.S., and endangered or threatened, they would not be hunted. And neither would lions, rhinos, or leopards. It’s time to ask an inconvenient question: If hunting is not a conservation tool for U.S. endangered species, with the world’s best regulatory framework, why would we expect it to be so in countries, like Zimbabwe, where the record is muddled, at best? 

Ideally, we shouldn’t be talking about elephant trophy imports. Elephants are being driven toward extinction by habitat loss, and industrial-scale poaching and ivory trafficking. But unfortunately, my former agency has made elephant hunting an issue, and exposed to the light-of-day, it is a cruel anachronism. I’m a life-long and proud hunter, but honestly, President Trump is right. Elephant hunting is a “horror show.” We can conserve elephants without hunting them. Botswana has 135,000 elephants, more than any other nation, and almost 40% of the world’s remaining population. Botswana does not allow elephant hunting. 

Given President Trump’s reaction, the USFWS is between the proverbial rock and hard place. They should withdraw their recent decision, reinstate the 2014 ban, and comprehensively and transparently review elephant hunting.  In the meantime, the Trump Administration must find its voice and footing on wildlife trafficking. That’s where we most need Presidential leadership. I noted earlier, that President Obama was not involved in banning trophy imports, but he and his administration’s impact in addressing the wildlife trafficking epidemic was, well, huge! His determined leadership brought all-of-government attention, allowing us to put in place regulations banning U.S. domestic sale of ivory. Obama’s personal diplomacy and that of his State Department convinced China’s President Xi to follow our lead, and they have begun closing their infamous ivory markets. Sally Jewell was the first Interior Secretary to visit Vietnam, and she carried a message of impassioned leadership on wildlife trafficking. I led the U.S. delegation for the 17th CITES Conference of the Parties, in September 2016, and we secured an international consensus against resuming ivory trade. Much is left undone. We need Trump administration leaders and leadership. President Trump clearly has a heart for animals. That’s encouraging.

Sixty-two AZA member zoos care for elephants. They work, tirelessly, giving exceptional and respectful care for these magnificent animals, and providing millions of visitors the opportunity to encounter them, each year. Across our entire membership, more than 200 million visitors will see elephants, and other animals, in the coming year, including giant panda, penguin, manta ray, Komodo dragon, dolphin, gorilla, chimpanzee, and orangutan, which we are helping to save from extinction, without trophy hunting.  The argument that we need to hunt endangered animals, like elephants, to conserve them, is old and tired.  If you haven’t been lately, visit one of these great zoos or aquariums. Spend some time with elephants and other endangered animals, and draw your own conclusions. 

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