This picture of three men providing a protective shield around one white rhino in Kenya shocked me. Is this what we’ve come to, with the last few rhinos having armed guards that resemble a Secret Service detail around a head of state? Is the trade in wild animal parts this ruthless, this voracious that this is what it takes to keep some of the most majestic animals alive?
Yes, in some cases, it is. But we need more than armed guards defending animals against poachers. We need good policies on trade in their parts, to deter people from killing these animals not just for trinkets but also for trophies.
That’s why the announcement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week to temporarily stop imports of sport-hunted trophies of African elephants from Tanzania and Zimbabwe is a much-needed reprieve for these animals. Elephants in these countries have been hit hard by poaching for the illegal ivory trade, yet the governments of Tanzania and Zimbabwe have continued to allow trophy hunters to legally kill elephants, contributing to the threats that plague these great beasts. Last year alone, poachers killed perhaps as many as 50,000 elephants for their ivory tusks, with most of the ivory on its way to China for carving and re-sale.
Both Botswana and Zambia, and now the United States as it pertains to Tanzania and Zimbabwe, have recognized that trophy hunting is harming wild populations and must be shut down. Between the U.S. import bans and Botswana’s and Zambia’s export bans, more than 500 elephants will be saved from American hunters’ bullets this year.
In 2012, the most recent year for which data are available, the parts of 594 African elephants were imported to the U.S. as trophies: 204 were from Zimbabwe and 36 from Tanzania.
Of these 594 elephants, 44 percent or 261 came from Botswana, but the good news is the president of that nation banned trophy hunting beginning in 2014. Zambia, from which the trophies of seven elephants were imported to the United States in 2012, has since banned trophy hunting. Their economies are much more dependent on wildlife tourism than trophy hunting, and they are increasingly seeing the issue in terms of both economics and ethics.
Hunters can still import African elephant trophies to the United States from Namibia and South Africa. The parts of 18 African elephants from Namibia and 68 from South Africa were imported to the U.S. as hunting trophies in 2012.
At a time when we ask poor Africans to stop killing elephants to trade in ivory trinkets, is it too much to ask rich Americans to stop killing elephants for trade in trophies for display in their homes?