Permits for elephant hunting trophies from Zimbabwe are being issued despite ban

  • Elephants smell for danger in 2010 in Kenya. AP file

Washington Post
Friday, December 15, 2017

Two years after the U.S. government banned shipments of elephant hunting trophies from Zimbabwe, a federal agency is still granting permits to more than a dozen people who hunted in that country to claim their prized ivory tusks.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service awarded permits to 16 people who requested them between January 2016 and as recently as October, according to Friends of Animals, a nonprofit environmental group that obtained documents through a Freedom of Information Act request. The first permit awarded this year came four days after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, and the last came shortly before a controversial proposal in November to lift the ban against trophy imports from Zimbabwe.

An uproar over Fish and Wildlife’s lifting of the ban prompted Trump to review the decision. Ryan Zinke, secretary of the Interior Department, which oversees Fish and Wildlife, subsequently announced that he agreed with his boss. Neither Trump or Zinke have spoken about the issue or the review in the month since the controversy erupted.

The Fish and Wildlife Service declined say if permits were being issued, but a person who works at the agency who declined to be named confirmed that the permits were issued. The employee explained that the permits were granted because the elephants had been hunted in Zimbabwe before the agency issued a finding in 2014 that the country’s management of its elephant herd was insufficient. A ban went into effect the following year.

Under the Obama administration, elephant-hunting trophies were allowed in from South Africa and Namibia, which worked diligently to account for elephants under its care and protect the population. Zimbabwe failed to meet Fish and Wildlife’s conservation standard for an animal considered threatened in the wild under the Endangered Species Act. For starters, it lacked knowledge of the size and whereabouts of its herd.

Zimbabwe and Safari Club International, which worked to improve the management of Zimbabwe’s elephants, celebrated last month’s initial announcement of a lifting of the ban against imports. Safari Club was so zealous that it made the announcement a day before Fish and Wildlife. The club bemoaned Trump’s and Zinke’s subsequent decision to review the plan by issuing a “call to arms,” blaming conservation groups and news outlets.

Zimbabwe and other hunting clubs voiced similar outrage. But opponents of lifting the trophy import ban included some of Trump’s staunchest supporters, including radio talk show host Laura Ingraham, who tweeted:

“I don’t understand how this move by @realDonaldTrump Admin will not INCREASE the gruesome poaching of elephants. Stay tuned.”

Friends of Animals sued to reinstate the ban less than a week later. To support its legal challenge, the group requested and received a spreadsheet from Fish and Wildlife documenting the issuance of permits to import the remains of African elephants and lions, which are also listed as threatened, as trophies.

Michael Harris, the wildlife law program director for the group, said the permits supports his group’s case against the Trump administration’s initial attempt to overturn the ban. “This really helps us show this is an unsubstantiated change in position” on the ban by Fish and Wildlife, Harris said. The group has a second freedom of information request for the applications submitted by the permit recipients and material supporting their requests.

“They were granted when the ban was in place so we’re questioning that,” Harris said. He disputed the explanation that they were granted because the animals were shot at a time when the U.S. approved of Zimbabwe’s management and trophy imports were legal. “I don’t buy it,” Harris said.