The legal background of the debate in recent days about the import of elephant tusks and other “trophy” body parts is not straightforward.
Yes, elephants are listed in the Endangered Species Act, which as a general rule would prohibit the importation into the United States of their body parts. But … that does not end the matter. Because there is a provision in the law that allows for the importation of otherwise prohibited body parts if there is sufficient evidence that the fees generated by the hunting will benefit conservation of the affected species.
Pursuant to that provision, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, within the Interior Department, has long allowed Americans to request its permission to import elephant trophies, each for one’s own personal use.
The Obama Era Ban: On and Off and On Again
In 2014, under the administration of President Obama, the USFWS forbade any trophies from being brought into the U.S. from Zimbabwe or Zambia, after finding that the management of hunting in those country’s did not pass the statutory test under ESA – it did not “enhance the survival of the African elephant in the wild.”
On Tuesday, November 14, though, the White House let it be known that it was reversing the 2014 decision. It did this is a roundabout manner – it seems to have told the Safari Club International (SCI) which in term put out the announcement. It took a couple of more days for the SCI announcement to percolate into the mainstream press, but by Thursday it was everywhere.
On Friday evening, President Trump reversed course, tweeting that he had put the “big game trophy decision on hold until such time as I review all conservation facts.” He said he would “update soon with [Interior] Secretary Zinke.”
Almost immediately thereafter, Ryan Zinke put out a statement (and linked to it on twitter) saying that “the issue of permits is being put on hold as the decision is being reviewed.”
Left Wing View
Advocates of a continued ban on the importation of the elephants have an online petition here.
One blogger, Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States says that the 2014 decision of the USFWS was “eminently reasonable,” based on the fact that Zimbabwe, “one of the most corrupt countries on earth,” Pacelle says, “was not managing its elephant population in as sustainable manner.”
Zimbabwe’s elephant population has declined 6% since 2001.
One of the common reactions to Friday evening’s tweet from the President, at least temporarily reversing the administration’s course on this issue, was simple relief. Greta Van Susteran – a former cable news host both for Fox News and for MSNBC — tweeted, “Thank you @realDonaldTrump – this is important to so many of us.”
But that expression of gratitude itself became controversial for some on the left, who thought it akin to thanking a bully for pulling (some of) his punches.
Right Wing View
Although many whom one might fairly call “conservative” take the same view as does Mr. Pacelle – that elephants are intelligent, sensitive creatures that (some believe) should not be hunted at all, and that certainly should not be hunted so long as they remain endangered. Conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham tweeted, “I don’t understands how this move” – the brief repeal of the ban, “will not INCREASE the gruesome poaching of elephants.”
Others make the point that the provision in the law allowing for such permits is there for a purpose, and that at least in some cases hunting is pro-conservation.
Yet others used this opportunity to make other points about their usual liberal/left wing foes. A twitter denizen who calls himself “Educating Liberals” tweeted, “So liberals think that it’s okay to kill human babies and sell their body parts, but a crime to kill an elephant and sell its body parts?”.
A similar comment ran: “Don’t get me wrong – elephants are great. But we should also care about the ‘human trophies’ that the Clinton family have collected in their decades long hunger for power.”
Susan Wright, in the conservative blog RedState, spoke more specifically to the point. She said, “I actually come from a family of hunters, and I have no problem with hunting, overall.” Nonetheless, she is concerned about “creating an atmosphere where poaching vulnerable species could be more easily facilitated, all with the U.S. government’s stamp of approval.”