For years, American hunters who wished to bring home trophy kill elephants from Zimbabwe and Zambia were thwarted by a prohibition under U.S. law — that is, until now.

To the consternation of ecologists, animal rights activists, conservationists, animal lovers, and a host of concerned groups and individuals, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) confirms Donald Trump’s draconian administration plans to lift the ban — allowing large game trophy animals like elephants, leopards, and lions killed on hunts in Zimbabwe and Zambia to be imported for the first time since 2014.

President Obama implemented the import prohibition after Zimbabwe’s efforts with the endangered animal’s management and conservation were found not to “enhance the survival of the African elephant in the wild.”

Now, without any indication Zimbabwe remedied deficiencies in its pachyderm ecology programs, Trump’s USFWS has removed the trophy import ban, citing hunting, itself — rather, the costs associated with the its licensing — as somehow bolstering conservation efforts.

While arguably technically the case — a sudden influx in license fees would indeed see at least a portion allocated for management programs — African elephants have been listed “threatened” on the dubious Endangered Species List since 1978. Exceptions exist under a provision of the Act, permitting the import of such trophies with concurrent evidence that hunting promotes conservation of the species — an imperative aspect which Obama’s administration found lacking, and Trump’s, reformed sufficiently to green light.

“Legal, well-regulated sport hunting as part of a sound management program can benefit the conservation of certain species by providing incentives to local communities to conserve the species and by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation,” a Fish and Wildlife spokesperson, quoted by the Independent, explained. “To support conservation, hunters should choose to hunt only in countries that have strong governance, sound management practices, and healthy wildlife populations.”

To reiterate, administration officials have yet to proffer any additional information or details elaborating on changes — if, indeed, any — made to Zimbabwe’s notoriously corrupt and mismanaged conservation and hunting programs prompted a reversal of earlier, environmentally-minded policy.

Indeed, the details surrounding the reversal have vastly departed with usual protocol, as HuffPost notes,

“The decision was made public not by the federal agency but via a celebratory news release early Tuesday from Safari Club International, a trophy hunting advocacy group that, along with the National Rifle Association, sued to block the 2014 ban.

“Greg Sheehan, principal deputy director of the FWS, broke the news to the hunting organization during the African Wildlife Consultative Forum (AWCF) in Tanzania, an agency spokesperson told HuffPost. The forum, which runs through Friday, is being hosted by the Safari Club International Foundation and the United Republic of Tanzania.”

Further, as the Guardian notes, “Last week US interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, a hunter himself and a keen supporter of hunting policies, established an International Wildlife Conservation Council It has a clear focus, the African Wildlife Foundation has pointed out, ‘on promoting the hunting industry, not conservation.’ Trump’s sons Donald Jr and Eric are well-known hunting enthusiasts.”

Photos of the pair holding the carcass of a leopard they’d presumably slain while on a hunting trip in Africa incensed much of the internet in 2015 — a clear indicator of the Trump family’s views on the sort of trophy sporting at the center of this firestorm.

Reports only suggest what language may be included in an announcement expected to be posted to the Federal Register on Friday, though HuffPost quoted the notice as stating, “There now appears to be a greater effort on the part of [Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority] to work with NGOs, landowners, and safari area concessionaires to improve elephant management and anti-poaching efforts.”

Poaching for the illegal and tragically lucrative ivory trade has exacerbated the decline of elephant populations everywhere. Now, conservationists and wildlife management experts see the Trump administration’s move to lift the import ban as premature and a feckless step backwards — if not off a cliff — in the global ivory and poaching crackdown.

“The US government has been a global leader in the fight to reverse the dangerous declines among Africa’s most iconic species such as elephant, rhino, and lion,” Jeff Chrisfield,  chief operating officer of African Wildlife Foundation, told the Guardian. “It is unfortunate that the Trump administration is willing to sacrifice that leadership position. Well-managed hunting can play a role in conservation. However, US policy on wildlife conservation should be informed by science, not by professional hunters and the gun lobby.”

Save the Elephants CEO Frank Pope, already staunchly against hunting elephants, lamented the potential reversal of success shutting down the bloody and illegal ivory industry, noting,

“How someone could want to shoot such an intelligent, empathetic animal as an elephant is beyond me. But what is most concerning for elephants is that renewed imports of trophy ivory into the US might undermine the all-important ivory trade bans put in place by America and China.

“China continues to show strong leadership and will close all ivory trade within her borders by the end of the year. Up to now American actions on elephants and ivory have been admirable. The fire of the ivory trade seems to be dying. The last thing we need is a sudden blast of oxygen from a misguided policy change.”

The Elephant Project tweeted a similarly disgusted rebuke of the administration’s ban lifting, asserting plainly,

“Reprehensible behaviour by the Trump Admin. 100 elephants a day are already killed. This will lead to more poaching.”

Some animal conservationists immediately condemned the reversal specifically in regard to Zimbabwe’s dismal record with elephant and hunting management, as Humane Society President and chief, Wayne Pacelle, informed the Washington Post,

“It’s a venal and nefarious pay-to-slay arrangement that Zimbabwe has set up with the trophy hunting industry.”

For the multitudinous critics of the decision, one albeit threadbare comfort is that prohibition on the import of trophies, as the notice stands now and lasts variably through 2018, depends on the viability of Zimbabwe’s conservation efforts — which must be evaluated before any renewal. USA Today reports,

“The reversal follows a similar, though not well-publicized move in October in which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service overturned a similar ban on lion trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia, having found that hunting has enhanced the survival of the lion in these two southern African countries. The service, according to statement on its website, will re-evaluate the hunting programs in Zimbabwe and Zambia in mid-2018 to determine if import permits can continue for 2019 and beyond.”

Meantime, elephant conservationists, endangered species activists, and animal lovers must be forced to contend with myopic policy decisions meted out behind closed doors — while preparing to adapt and shift to maintain successful inroads against the ivory trade.

It was the Humane Society’s Pacelle who, speaking to the Post, encapsulated the ironic hypocrisy in the U.S.’ embarrassing message to the world delivered with Trump’s gift to trophy hunters:

“What kind of message does it send to say to the world that poor Africans who are struggling to survive cannot kill elephants in order to use or sell their parts to make a living, but that it’s just fine for rich Americans to slay the beasts for their tusks to keep as trophies?”

Further details are expected to be released Friday.


Image: Wikimedia Commons/Alex Proimos.