President Trump’s declaration that the trophy hunting of elephants and other animals is “a horror show” is, to say the least, a bold and provocative statement from a U.S. leader. Never before has an American official taken such a forthright stand on the issue of trophy hunting, and it was as welcome as it was surprising from this president.
It was provoked, of course, by an attempt by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow the import of sport-hunted elephant trophies from Zambia and Zimbabwe. News of the policy shift came on the day press outlets reported a coup in Zimbabwe, a country long led by a despot with an affection for favoritism and corruption and a pay-to-play approach to the utilization of the country’s rich natural resources. The timing of the U.S. announcement was extraordinary, hardly inspiring confidence that our government was paying close attention to the political disarray gripping that country and affecting every aspect of a civil society.
The proponents of trophy hunting inside and outside our government trotted out their tired argument that shooting threatened and endangered animals helps protect species. Of course, animals are classed as threatened or endangered when they are scarce, and removing animals from the populations by definition shrinks the population. It only requires an understanding of the fundamentals of arithmetic to conclude that this approach sends the population in the wrong direction.
Particularly when it comes to elephants, the trophy hunting mantra falls flat – even beyond the idea that shooting a pachyderm is about as difficult as shooting a school bus. The proper execution of the global campaign to end the ivory trade requires a level of moral consistency, with the rules and restrictions applying to everyone. To carve out, so to speak, one class of ivory users — the trophy hunters – hardly inspires people on the ground in African nations to honor the ban.
On so many levels, their argument for trophy hunting breaks down. There are 50 nations in the world that have elephants — 37 in Africa and 13 in Asia. There are now six countries — South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Tanzania, and Mozambique — that allow elephant trophy hunting. If elephant trophy hunting were such a valuable tool, we’d find it in more countries with elephants.
It strikes me as a poorly constructed rationalization to argue that a handful of privileged men traveling halfway around the world to kill elephants provides a service to the animals. They are there for reasons other than conservation. They want to kill and drag something home. If that was the only means of attracting people to visit Africa, they might have some kind of argument to make. But it turns out millions of people from all over the world trek to Africa each year to see wildlife, and 99 percent of them are happy to watch the animals and leave them intact and thriving. Their enthusiasm for wildlife produces collective spending in the billions of dollars. Those expenditures dwarf what little spending comes from the small, aging class of trophy hunters.
When Walter Palmer shot Cecil the lion three summers past, so many of the world’s major airlines declared they’d no longer transport the trophies of elephants, lions, and other big-game animals in the cargo holds of their planes. That is one sign of the times, and an indicator of how the global community has soured on the idea of trophy hunting and the force-feeding of the public with the convoluted argument that the only way we can save wildlife is to allow people to hurt them and break up their families.
Times are changing. There are just three nations in the world that allow the commercial slaughter of whales. We recognize these countries as outliers in the global community, feeding the rest of us phony arguments to justify a selfish adherence to practices that no longer conform to our broader societal ethos in treating animals decently and wiping out archaic forms of cruelty. The six nations that allow elephant trophy hunting, and other governments that enable that bloody enterprise, are increasingly recognized as outliers too.
The president is right to condemn the practice of trophy hunting of threatened and endangered species, and he’s gotten enormous support on the right and left and from the mainstream of American society. A consistent application of the principle won’t just result in him declaring an end to imports of elephant trophies, but also that of African lions, and a reconsideration of overall U.S. policy on trophy imports. Lions and many other species are under siege, and we should be their protectors, not their persecutors.