Lifting the Ban on Elephant Trophies Will Probably Help Save Elephants

Our knee-jerk reaction to hunting (and to Trump) ignores good data that suggest hunting works as a means of conservation.

Hunting some elephants like these could actually save more elephants like these.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week it’s reversing a ban against importing remains of elephants hunted legally in Zimbabwe and Zambia, which means that starting Friday, these “trophies” can be brought back into the U.S. as long as hunters apply for and receive the correct permits.

The FWS argues that the reversal of the ban, first imposed by the Obama administration in 2014, will help create a revenue stream for pouring money back into conservation efforts to help elephants and other African animals, particularly those whose population statuses are currently threatened.

“Legal, well-regulated sport hunting as part of a sound management program can benefit certain species by providing incentives to local communities to conserve those species and by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation,” an FWS spokesperson told Slate. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the hunting and management programs for African elephants in Zimbabwe and Zambia will enhance the survival of the species in the wild.”

Hunting is often a part of managed conservation efforts, and it often stirs a specific type of controversy. Unsurprisingly, many decried the new move as callous, and feared the move would facilitate a sharp increase in elephant hunting—legal and illegal alike. Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of the Humane Society, wrote a blog post asking what kind of message it sends 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?”

But perhaps the main reason this decision rubbed people the wrong way is because Donald Trump’s sons are notorious for their elephant hunting.

It’s understandable to find the practice of hunting elephants for sport repulsive. It’s also understandable to be suspicious of this change given everything happening in politics right now. But these loud missives don’t do justice to the nuanced factors that go into developing and implementing conservation efforts. When you considered the facts on the ground, lifting restrictions on elephant trophy bans isn’t necessarily a bad idea. In fact, it could be a good idea.

It’s true that the opening of trophy imports will probably encourage more legal hunting. That’s actually the point. Hunting is not an inherently bad thing for animal conservation. When hunting is legal and well-regulated, it can actually help keep animal populations in check and prevent them from overwhelming an ecosystem. That’s precisely why hunting white-tailed deer is encouraged during hunting season in much of the U.S.

Now, African elephant populations don’t resemble white-tailed deer in North America. Deer are much more populous, and faster to reproduce. But it’s important to note that elephant populations are not in the dire straits they once were. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the African elephant species as “vulnerable,” not endangered, meaning population numbers or habitat range are less than satisfactory but can improve if measures are taken. One of those measures could be controlled hunting that shaves off individual numbers in the short term to create a bigger population growth in the long term.

Moreover, those populations experience different versions of stability depending on the country, and that “vulnerable” status doesn’t necessarily apply everywhere. According to the Great Elephant Census, the African savanna’s elephant population across 18 countries went down 30 percent from 2007 to 2014. But that’s only part of the picture. In 2014, Zimbabwe’s elephant populations tallied up to more than 82,000—an incredibly far cry from the 4,000 individuals counted up around 1900. The GEC numbers suggest the elephant population numbers for both Zimbabwe and Zambia are fairly stable.

And stability is key for the FWS. Historically speaking, the U.S. Department of the Interior has always paid more attention to local population stability than absolute numbers across the globe. In making this move for two countries, the FWS seems to be reinforcing an approach that’s tailored to regions rather than an entire continent.

The FWS’s official reasons for lifting the ban in Zimbabwe stem in part from what it says is an availability of new information that demonstrates a clearer understanding of African elephant populations in the country. The decision was also based on assessments of how revenue can be generated out of trophy imports and licenses, a new species management plan adopted by the government that will establish and enforce firm hunting quotas, and new regulatory mechanisms that should make it easier to track revenue generated from trophy imports (and limit corruption) while turning that money back over into conservation efforts. In sum, these changes have the potential to secure current elephant populations and help grow them in places where numbers are declining. (The same information on why the ban was lifted is not available with regard to Zambia.)

The FWS’s reasons are part of a larger argument that when a proper regulatory framework is implemented, conservation efforts actually thrive. A 2001 paper published in Science points to how legalizing trophy hunting in Zimbabwe has “doubled the area of the country under wildlife management relative to the 13% in state protected areas,” since the program at the time included private lands. “As a result, the area of suitable land available to elephants and other wildlife has increased, reversing the problem of habitat loss and helping to maintain a sustained population increase in Zimbabwe’s already large elephant population.” And considering how an elephant trophy fee could be anywhere from $4,000 to $18,500, the potential for revenue generated by trophy import permits could be a massive boon to both conservation projects and local communities alike

The problem, of course, is making sure those bureaucratic bodies actually work as they are meant to. There’s a totally fair case to make that corruption can detrimentally subvert whatever gains can be made off of trophy imports. And given the fact that there’s a military coup underway in Zimbabwe right now, it’s not clear how much confidence one should have in the government’s ability to enforce hunting laws. But in the broadest sense, this decision seems to reflect a reasonable reaction to the facts on the ground.