President Trump’s Elephant Flip-Flop May Have Done Some Good

by | Dec 21, 2017 | Animal Welfare, International, Law & Policy | 0 comments

A ranger in Mozambique inspects elephant feet, a valued trophy of the hunt. Via Shutterstock.com

Edtor’s Note: Bethany A Ordonez is a Pace University masters in environmental science candidate.  ~ JC

For a few days in November, there was a flurry of activity from the Trump administration when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a repeal of the ban by the Obama administration on the import of elephant trophies, and then President Trump himself suspended that repeal with a promise to review the “horror show” that is elephant hunting.  Hunters and animal advocates alike were left bewildered by the confusing messages coming out of Washington. What really happened, and what does this mean for Africa’s elephants?

Reports from within the White House suggest that media coverage first alerted President Trump to his agency’s decision and the outcry in response from animal advocates, the general public and even some conservative voices, such as Laura Ingraham who wrote, “I don’t understand how this move . . . will not INCREASE the gruesome poaching of elephants.”

The reversal of the USFWS that then followed was a slap to the face of hunters who had already been celebrating the repeal. Safari Club International, representing 50,000 hunters, issued a “call to arms.” SCI’s central mission is to defend the “freedom to hunt.” Hunting is a sound conservation method, the organization maintains, bringing much needed funding to African communities and conservation efforts.

This pervasive fallacy deserves attention. The president’s surprising flip-flop could provide a much-needed pause for discussion.

Elephants are fascinating creatures, and I can honestly say that no matter how many times I have seen one in the wild, every single time is breathtaking. It is a well-documented that elephants have strong social bonds and are incredibly empathetic toward each other. They visit what are known as elephant graveyards where the bones of their ancestor lie, and have been observed to gently, almost reverently stroke the bones of the dead. They possess an innate ability to find water during the driest of seasons, following old migratory paths and digging for water where no one would think to look.

If you are ever able to stand in the African bush and watch an elephant walk by, as I have, you might wonder too: What makes a person look at this magnificent creature and think, “I would love to kill that thing, cut out its tusks, and cut off its feet and tail for trophies.”

Responsible conservation is not an easy path. Some believe that controlling populations through “culling” is part of the dirty work. Consider:  What if the killing of healthy animals means the overall health of the food web is maintained? Is killing an elephant to help maintain a healthy population of cheetahs acceptable?  What about to help a struggling bird population? Many people would advocate for moving the animals to a new territory, however these translocations are incredibly expensive, stressful, and dangerous for the animal, and rarely allow for this type of expenditure. These questions are rarely discussed openly, at least until a controversy explodes.

This is where hunting advocates, such as SCI, step in and say money generated by controlled hunts can be used to help conservation efforts. They argue that the $45,000 spent on an elephant hunt in Zimbabwe funds local budgets and supports the jobs of trackers and guides and is spent accommodation and food.  But does it really make a difference?  Is the money being used as is claimed?

In the case of a country like Zimbabwe, the money that goes directly to the parks is close to zero, according to a CBS news investigative story from 2015.  Following the outcry from the killing of Cecil the lion, many news agencies decided to take a closer look at hunting practices in the sub-Saharan country, and the findings were not what many had hoped for. In the 2015 CBS interview, Emmanual Fundira, the head of Safari operators in Zimbabwe said that most of the money is taken up with bureaucratic administration and very little filters down to assist in actual conservation.

The villagers themselves see nothing of the money from the hunts, especially in Zimbabwe where a program called CAMPFIRE is supposed to help distribute some of the funding to the rural communities.  Investigations into the claims made by CAMPFIRE of 15% or more increase in income in rural communities, found that the organization is also mired in corruption, and the people on the ground are not receiving the money promised to them.

While the idea that hunting helps conservation may help some people sleep easier, it simply isn’t true.  Hunting of big game by those paying top-dollar just to shoot an animal should be outlawed. With the money lining the pockets of those in power, however, there is little hope of that happening.  What does this all mean for the ban on elephant trophies? At least for now, those hunters forking out thousands will have to settle for leaving their prized trophies in Africa.  Does it mean that less hunters will be willing to travel the 15 hours to Zimbabwe to hunt while paying almost $50k to shoot an elephant? Perhaps, and if that saves a few elephant lives, for that I am glad. 

President Trump’s reversal of his own agency’s trophy ban repeal stands in stark contrast to his administration’s dismal record on animal rights — from hiding the records of animal abuse violations to the proposed review of rules that prohibit killing hibernating bears and wolves along with their cubs and pups. No matter his reasoning on the repeal, I for one am grateful that, for now at least, the ban on elephant trophy imports remains in place. If it causes people to stop and take a deeper look into the world of big game hunting for fun and profit, and the hot-button issue of culling, then maybe all the flip-flopping by the White House has actually done some good.

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Bethany A. Ordonez is a candidate in the Pace Masters of Science in Environmental Science Program