President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Friday night announced that the administration’s reversal of a ban on importation of elephant hunt trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia has been put on hold until further review. The sudden decision follows protests from animal rights groups and even some conservatives after the administration decided to reverse an Obama-era rule barring such imports.
President Trump tweeted first, saying the ban would continue “until such time as I review all conservation facts.”
Hours later, Zinke elaborated: “President Trump and I have talked and both believe that conservation and healthy herds are critical,” he said in a statement. “As a result, in a manner compliant with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations, the issuing of permits is put on hold as the decision is being reviewed.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had announced the policy shift just two days earlier, with officials signaling in a statement that they would expand efforts to promote trophy hunting as a form of conservation.
Under the Obama administration, elephant-hunting trophies were allowed in South Africa and Namibia but not in Zimbabwe because Fish and Wildlife decided in 2015 that the nation had failed to prove that its management of elephants enhanced the population. At the time, Zimbabwe could not confirm its elephant population in a way that was acceptable to U.S. officials and did not demonstrate an ability to implement laws to protect it.
According to individuals briefed on the rule change, agency career staff had decided to allow Zimbabwean imports after officials there provided sufficient documentation. The issue was a priority for Interior’s political appointees, added the individuals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, but the appointees did not dictate the outcome.
The change was to apply to elephants shot in Zimbabwe on or after Jan. 21, 2016, and to those legally permitted to be hunted before the end of next year.
The African elephant population in that country has fallen 6 percent in recent years, according to the Great Elephant Census project. It is relatively stable in Zambia, which has decided to renew hunting after having previously banned it because of several decades of sharp decline.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has also been reviewing whether to allow elephant trophy imports from Tanzania, where poaching is rampant and the species has suffered a sharp decline in recent decades.
The agency’s move came a week after Zinke established an “International Wildlife Conservation Council” to advise him on how to increase Americans’ public awareness of conservation, wildlife enforcement and the “economic benefits that result from U.S. citizens traveling abroad to hunt.”
“The conservation and long-term health of big game crosses international boundaries,” Zinke said in a statement announcing the group’s creation. “This council will provide important insight into the ways that American sportsmen and women benefit international conservation from boosting economies and creating hundreds of jobs to enhancing wildlife conservation.”
Two of the department’s existing wildlife advisory bodies — the Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking and the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council — remain suspended as a result of a temporary freeze Zinke imposed earlier this year on all such panels. And the U.S. Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, which was codified into law last year and is led by Interior as well as the Justice and State departments, has not been active since Trump took office.
“If you care about wildlife, how can you ignore wildlife trafficking?” said Bob Dreher, vice president for conservation at the Defenders of Wildlife, who served as Fish and Wildlife associate director from 2014 to 2016.
Safari Club International, a hunting advocacy group that has consistently opposed any restrictions on importing trophies from abroad, broke the news of the rule change a day ahead of the government. Its statement included a detail that the agency omitted: A Fish and Wildlife official made the announcement at a forum the Safari Club’s foundation arm co-hosted in Tanzania, from which elephant trophy imports remain banned. An agency spokeswoman declined to confirm that account.