When the US announced plans this week to allow the import of elephant trophies, global outrage echoed loud, and President Donald Trump soon put the decision 'on hold'. But are there arguments for controlled slaughter?
Shooting endangered animals as a contribution to conservation efforts sounds like the greatest oxymoron of all time, yet it is that reasoning that US President Donald Trump's administration used to back up its highly contentious proposal to allow elephant parts obtained through hunting in Zimbabwe and Zambia to be taken home as trophies. The outcry that ensued prompted the Trump Administration to reverse its stance the next day.
"African elephants are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)," the US Fish and Wildlife Service said in a written statement. "Our nation has an obligation under the ESA to make sure US hunters are contributing to the conservation of elephants in the wild by participating in hunting programs that provide a clear conservation benefit and contribute to the long-term survival of the species in the wild."
Trump himself tweeted on the issue, saying the decision was on hold "until such time as I review all conservation facts."
Those fighting for the survival of the African elephant population, which is classified as vulnerable on theIUCN Red List, and whose numbers international NGO Pro Wildlife says dropped from 10 million in 1990 to 415,000 in 2015, have responded with a mixture of anger and dismay.
A decision based on science?
Writing on the Conservation International blog, M. Sanjayan, CEO of the non-profit described the decision as the "wrong move at the wrong time" for the protection of African wildlife.
"The original ban was enacted based on detailed findings on the condition of elephant populations on the ground, and it strains credulity to suggest that local science-based factors have been met to justify this change," he said.
Back in 2014, when the ban, which made it illegal for Americans to bring elephant parts, such as tusks, home from expensive hunting trips to Zimbabwe, was implemented, the country's Loxodonta Africana species population stood at 82,304. Three years later, the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, Zimparks put the number at "over 83,000".
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Zimbabwe, like Zambia, the other country named in Trump's plans, sets quotas for the number of animals whose tusks are allowed to be legally exported each year. For both this and last year, these, as noted in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) national export quotas, stood at 500 and 80 in the respective southern African countries.
In overturning the ban, the ESA said it would be allowing imports from countries with "well-managed hunting programs that are contributing to conservation of elephants in the wild."
Despite the throwaway tone of the words "well-managed", Richard Thomas, spokesman for wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC, says there is clear evidence that if properly monitored, trophy-hunting can genuinely prove beneficial to the population regeneration of a given species.
"There is obviously a certain balance that needs to be made," he said. "If quota levels are set too high, or if females are taken out, that could have a negative impact. And the flow of money has to be seen to be put into local communities."
He cites the white rhino population in South Africa as a success story that would make it hard to argue against the advantages of controlled shooting. After having been pushed to the brink by the hunting habits of colonial landowners a century or so ago, careful breeding brought the numbers back up to some 800 specimens. It was at that point that trophy hunting was introduced.
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"It has created an incentive for landowners to stock rhinos on their land because they could sell the trophy hunting rights," Thomas continued, adding that it led to an increase in available habitat for the animals. "It certainly helped lead to a resurgence in the population, which is now at 20,000."
No one size fits all
But that doesn't imply there will be a similar outcome in Zambia or Zimbabwe, which was thrust into political turmoil this week, and which ranks towards the bottom end of Transparency International's corruption perception index.
Statistics suggest an African elephant is killed every 20 minutes, many by highly professional criminal networks who smuggle the contraband ivory out of the continent to China where it continues to fetch a kilo price of 593 euros ($700).
As the elephant population has slumped, conservation groups all over the world have been pushing hard to enforce the CITES ban on ivory shipping, which has been in place since 1989. They have long had their work cut out for them and fear that the Trump administration plans send the wrong signal in the ongoing battle to save one of the big five.
President and CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Azzedine Downes slams the idea that vulnerable elephants have to be killed for the greater good of their species.
"While the Trump administration suggests otherwise, there are economically-viable alternatives to trophy hunting that consider individual animals and local communities. Sadly this move will undermine conservation efforts by IFAW and other partners to protect endangered species in the region and will negatively impact progress made to date," she wrote in a statement.
The proposals have not yet been made official, but Conservation International expects that to happen within the coming days. Though it is too soon to say what impact their endorsement would have on the elephant populations of Zambia or Zimbabwe, Richard Thomas says the fact that quotas are already in place doesn't change the number of animals that can legally be killed.
He also notes, however, that Americans "are among one of the major nationalities who do go trophy hunting."