Sometimes, it’s the small, quiet things that rightly should command our utmost attention.
Such a situation occurred on March 1, 2018, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) wrote a memorandum stating that it was reversing a 2014 ban imposed by the Obama administration on elephant trophy imports. Instead of a full prohibition, the USFWS will now assess each case on an “individual basis.”
What’s also troubling about this turnabout is that the news wasn’t published the usual way on the USFWS website nor in a media release from the agency or the Department of the Interior. Instead, it was placed in a memo. And, in contrast to scientific studies that conclude the contrary, wordage on the USFWS website now reads that “legal, well-regulated 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.”
We’ve heard this argument before regarding lions. Does it actually hold any water?
Killing for conservation
The African elephant has been classified as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act since 1978. From 2007 to 2014, elephants on the African savanna declined by 30 percent. In some places, numbers have dropped even lower; and experts now say that only about 415,000 African elephants remain, down from an estimated one million as recently as the 1970s and a potential 20 million that roamed Africa before it was colonized by settlers from European countries.
Traditionally, the United States has allowed hunting trophies—defined as animal parts gained during a hunt that are valued as prizes, such as elephant tusks—to be imported only if nations proved that such hunting would not harm that specific animal’s overall population. In 2014, however, Zambia and Zimbabwe were found to fall short of that guideline; and elephant trophies from those countries were banned from the United States.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now maintains that allowing elephant parts from Zambia and Zimbabwe to be brought back into the U.S. as trophies would raise money for conservation programs in those countries. A licensed, two-week African elephant hunt can cost more than $50,000 per person. Profits from those enterprises, say trophy advocates, can save elephants and other threatened and endangered species when those proceeds are used to responsibly manage herds in ways that encourage growth.
But according to a 2016 report by the Democratic staff of the House Natural Resources Committee, titled Missing the Mark: African trophy hunting fails to show consistent conservation benefits, little evidence was found that such monies are actually being used to help threatened species. Rampant corruption and poorly managed wildlife programs in some countries get in the way of those funds ever being allotted for the stated purpose. The report concluded that trophy hunting is most likely contributing to the extinction of certain animals.
Mixing the messages
Many animal-rights groups and environmentalists point out that killing for conservation sends out the wrong signal to the world and impedes the hard-won international efforts that have started to curb illegal poaching. It’s contradictory to say that it’s okay for wealthy Americans who can afford the astronomical trophy-hunt fees to kill elephants, but poor Africans who could sell the animals’ body parts in order to make a living must not.
A 2014 Colorado State University study showed that as many as 100,000 African elephants were killed for their ivory between 2010 and 2012. Forest elephants declined by an estimated 62 percent between 2002 and 2011, due to an absence of law enforcement, high human density, poor governance, proximity to expanding infrastructure and hunting intensity. Giving American trophy hunters the green light to kill more elephants would devastate the remnant populations of these endangered animals and undermine all of the conservation work and education efforts that have been accomplished over the past few years.
Elephants are Earth’s largest land mammals. We shouldn’t rush into a future where it’s more likely that we’ll lose them forever.
I’d say that we need to pay attention to quiet, little communiques and edicts, such as under-the-radar memos, because, sometimes, they’re about very big things.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,