In recent news President Donald Trump has denounced, via his twitter page, his own political party for their plans to remove the ban prohibiting imports of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe.
This highly contentious topic is so multi-faceted it is hard to make sense of, so here we will try to give a simplified view of both sides of the discussion. The ban has been halted to both Zimbabwe and Zambia but we’ll mainly focus on Zimbabwe. To keep matters simple we will not mention lion trophies in this article, we’ve spoken about the illegal trade of this species in a previous blog post.
To start it is important to know an elephant trophy is not a specified item. It can be the head or any other part of the body, for instance the tail or a foot of the animal. Many people in the US are not aware that the import of ivory into the US is lawful providing the correct documentation proving it is a sport-hunted trophy is provided. Sport-hunting of many animal species in Africa – including elephant – is legal. However, onward sale of the trophy once in the US is not allowed.
In 2014 the Obama administration banned the import of elephant trophies from both Zimbabwe and Zambia. This was due to their poor records of elephant data and numbers and regulation of the hunting industry. A survey of the African continent’s elephant numbers published in 2016 showed the declines in population numbers in both countries. Zambia had a decrease in population numbers of 11% in the decade from 2005-2015, with one National Park’s numbers declining from 900 in 2004 to just 48 in 2015. While Zimbabwe had the second highest population number on the continent in the recent census, the decline was 10%. These percentage declines are greater than the replacement number of breeding elephants (about 6%), and so the total population in each country is declining. The African continent’s total elephant population numbers dropped nearly 30% from 2007 to 2014 – with the total now standing at an alarming 352 000. Causes are thought to be mainly poaching for the illegal wildlife trade and in some cases, habitat destruction.
The reason the import ban into the US is so important is because it is the largest importer of trophy hunted animals in the world today. Within that industry from 2005 to 2010 2,963 violations were documented for the import of sport hunted trophies to the country. Just over half were relating to endangered species with only 14 people serving jail time and 546 having to pay fines from $25 to $390,700. With these figures of prosecution there is reasonable chance that a trophy that violates import law will not result in more than a minor fine and so may propagate the illegal wildlife trade.
The country with the biggest illegal ivory trade in the world is China. In recent years this country was the largest importer of trophy hunted ivory from Zimbabwe. Many are sceptical that this is not a part of the illegal wildlife trade for which China is infamous.
Both Zambia and Zimbabwe have proposed to the US Fish & Wildlife Services (USFWS) that they now have the numbers, the correct means and plans to monitor and maintain their elephant population numbers. This is what led to the Obama-era ban being lifted and the USFWS starting to sell permits for elephant trophy imports from these countries.
President Trump has paused the removal of the ban, and thus stopped trophy permit sales, for both countries and many wonder why his administration had gone so far in the plans with him seemingly unaware of the facts.
Trophy hunters have been unhappy about the ban the Obama administration introduced. Conservation force, wrote an open letter in June 2017 to the Director of the USFWS to request that the importing of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe should become lawful. The letter was written to appeal the import two specific trophies and they argue that the original ban was “based on erroneous information and misinterpretation of fact and has been from the very beginning”. They have said that the lack of data from Zimbabwe at the time of the decision was due to the US not asking for it and say it was provided after the fact with no reaction.
This letter also lays out the basis of the “hunters as conservationists” argument. The hunters provide money to the areas in which they hunt and so to the communities, they provide employment in the industry. A trophy hunt to kill an African elephant can be up to $60,000, in a country where the average monthly earnings is around $350.00. This amount is more than a photographic tourist would pay to visit the area, meaning the number of tourists and the impact on the environment is less.
The money is said to not only serve the local communities but also allows large swathes of the continent to be protected natural areas for the animals, areas that are not part of the national parks.
Not every animal in a herd will be shot, in fact for trophy hunting they will choose an animal at the end of it’s life, partly for the most impressive trophy, but also as this will have the least impact on the ecosystem.
However removing the strongest and biggest animals from the population is contrary to evolution and hunting, with poaching has impacted the gene pools of the populations. The best elephant trophy is the largest with the biggest tusks. This individual will most likely be the most dominant in an area and likely to mate with the most females and pass on superior genetic material. If this male is killed before he has fulfilled his mating potential then there will be less of his genetic information in the gene pool and more of smaller, weaker individuals. This happens repeatedly until there is very little of the ‘large’ genes left and the effects can be seen within the elephant populations now after the big game hunting days of the 1900s.
The other important aspect of killing the mature bulls is the impact on the younger bulls. These trophy bulls will be in their late 40s, 50s and even 60’s. They have decades of experience from which younger bulls learn. The social experience is highly important in the same way it is for young humans to learn to behave, learning manners, when to get upset and when not to. There is also ecological knowledge they pass on, for instance where the water is found in a drought and how to get there. Removing that knowledge affects the next generation; it will be damaging to the whole population and eventually will have a drip down effect for years to come.
Responsible hunting farms will be sure to manage their populations correctly and ensure the surrounding communities benefit from the business, but the problem comes in with corruption. Africa is rife with corruption and when companies from America try to apply the systems and principles that apply in the US it often falls flat of achieving the desired effects. The systems in Zimbabwe, which are in place to ensure the communities receive money from the legal hunts are in fact managed, whether deliberately or not, so poorly that the local people only occasionally benefit from the hunts. With the local people being so poor and gaining nothing from the elephants but trouble with crop damage, there is little wonder that so many turn to poaching to feed their families.
This is a debate that will no doubt continue into 2018 and we will keep you updated on developments and the repercussions thereof.