(CN) - Entrusting hunters with the survival of the threatened African elephant, U.S. wildlife regulators removed an Obama-era restriction on the importation of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia.
“Legal, well-regulated sport 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,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement late Wednesday. “To support conservation, hunters should choose to hunt only in countries that have strong governance, sound management practices, and healthy wildlife population.”
Wildlife advocates blasted the move as making the United States an outlier on yet another conservation issue.
“Let’s be clear: elephants are on the list of threatened species; the global community has rallied to stem the ivory trade; and now, the U.S. government is giving American trophy hunters the green light to kill them,” Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, wrote in a blog post.
“What kind of message does it send,” Pacelle continued, “to say to the world 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?”
Elephant poaching in Africa is largely driven by the Chinese market, and domestic sales of ivory have remained legal there and in the United States despite bans on the international ivory trade dating back to 1989.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama came together to reverse this trend in 2015, however, announcing what they called “nearly complete” bans on their domestic ivory markets.
As the United States bucks this commitment today, China managed by March 2017 to close 67 of its licensed ivory facilities, including 12 of its 35 ivory-carving factories and several dozen of its more than 130 ivory retailers. The country’s State Forestry Administration, which oversees wildlife-trade issues, vowed that that rest would shutter by 2018.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a bureau within the Department of the Interior, whose leader has made the promotion of hunting a priority.
“Some of my best memories are hunting and fishing with my dad and granddad, and then later teaching my own kids to hunt and fish,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in September, marking the installation of the arcade game “Big Buck Hunter” at department headquarters.
Zinke formalized the push last week with his creation of the International Wildlife Conservation Council, a group that the secretary has tasked with revisiting the endangered-species designation of “foreign-listed species.”
"This council will provide important insight into the ways that American sportsmen and women benefit international conservation from boosting economies and creating hundreds of jobs to enhancing wildlife conservation," Zinke said.
Though the Department of the Interior has not returned a request for statement, pro-hunting lobbyists at Safari Club International note that the new permits on elephant trophies will remain in place until 2018. Permits are available for elephants hunted in Zimbabwe on or after Jan. 21, 2016, and on or before Dec. 31, 2018.
A statement on the announcement, which was delivered Wednesday at the African Wildlife Consultative Forum, makes no mention of Zambia elephants, but ABC News quoted a Fish and Wildlife spokesperson as saying that the trophies of elephants hunted in Zambia during 2016, 2017 and 2018 are also eligible for importation.
Hunters remain barred from importing the trophies of elephants hunted in Tanzania, according to a release from Fish and Wildlife.
When the Obama administration adopted the ban in 2014, it cited widespread reports that elephants were being poached for their ivory tusks.
More than 300 elephants in a Zimbabwe national park were poisoned for their ivory in 2013, according to one report, which said Zimbabwe’s population of African elephants that year had dropped to 47,366 — down from 84,416 in 2007.
The Great Elephant Census reported that Zimbabwe’s elephant population dropped 6 percent in 2016. The country has been criticized for its lax "pay-to-slay" policies toward wealthy big-game hunters - an issue that rose to prominence in 2015 when Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer paid a hefty fee to hunt and kill Cecil the lion, an iconic, protected resident of the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.
A study put out this past March by the Nairobi-based nonprofit Save the Elephants reported meanwhile that international anti-poaching efforts have, in conjunction with other factors, caused the price of ivory to drop by nearly two-thirds.
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