Yesterday, on this blog, I reacted in real time to the Safari Club International’s announcement that the U.S. Department of the Interior plans to lift a ban on the import of sport-hunted trophies of rare and beleaguered African elephants. In short, our government is essentially turning loose American trophy hunters in Zimbabwe, at a time when declines in elephant populations have been documented because of the ruthless killing of the animals for their ivory. The United States has led the fight against the ivory trade worldwide, and now it’s undermining that morally urgent fight by allowing one class of ivory hunters to have their way with elephants. The upper class, that is.
And it’s just as shocking that the agency is also turning trophy hunters loose to kill African lions. The lion hunters are typically the elephant hunters too, because of the contest killing framework that the Safari Club has devised. You see, SCI has an awards program that promotes the trophy killing of the world’s rarest animals, as a way to drive business to the guides and outfitters who contribute to the organization. One award is the Africa Big Five, which involves killing an elephant, lion, rhino, leopard, and Cape buffalo.
With yesterday’s news, which has prompted trophy hunting companies to advertise Zimbabwean elephant hunts on their websites, the Interior Department and the government of Zimbabwe (whoever is in charge) are rolling out the red carpet for the next Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who lured a famous and beloved lion, Cecil, out of a national park and shot and wounded him with an arrow.
Palmer left Cecil to bleed through the night, and then went out the next morning to finish him off. Walter Palmer never ended up facing any charges. Adding insult to injury, as an example of Zimbabwe’s inability to properly manage trophy hunting, its government dropped all charges against the hunting guide who accompanied him on this infamous and illegal hunt.
In July, I wrote about an eerily familiar slaying in Zimbabwe: a trophy hunter shot and killed Xanda the lion, whose primary range consisted of a portion of Hwange National Park. Xanda was the son of Cecil, and about four years old when Palmer killed his father.
No one knew what would become of Cecil’s progeny, since trophy hunting disrupts social relationships among family members. Lions live in communities where males sometimes work together to protect their mates and cubs; when a dominant male is lost, new male coalitions may seize the moment and try to take over their prides. When they succeed, they are known to kill the cubs to ensure the females continue only their lineage. Xanda survived the loss of his father and grew into a mature male who mated and had cubs of his own.
In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, acting on a petition from The HSUS and Humane Society International, classified all African lions as endangered or threatened. In response to that plea, the agency, based on the best available science, forbid the imports of sport-hunted trophies effective January 22, 2016. Each year prior to that, trophy hunters had been killing as many as 600 lions in Africa and bringing their parts home, with the continent-wide population at only 20,000 and rapidly declining. Their numbers have been cut in half in just the last two decades. Trophy hunting is, without question, one of the greatest threats to lions.
Yesterday’s announcement from the Interior Department will not only allow sport-hunting trophies for 2017 to come into the United States, but it will also permit entry of those from 2016. The administration is doing a reachback and accommodating all of those American hunters who killed lions in 2016 but couldn’t legally bring them back. Call it an amnesty program for the lion hunters.
The outrage factor is almost beyond compare for us at The HSUS.
Remember, this same administration took aim at two Obama-era rules to protect grizzly bears, wolves, and other native carnivores on 100 million acres of national wildlife refuges and national preserves. In April, President Trump signed a repeal of the refuge rule protecting predators. And just last week, the agency announced that it was revisiting the rule – which means starting the process to nix it – for National Park Service lands in Alaska.
So first there was an assault on Alaskan wildlife. And now an assault on African wildlife. The American public should not stand for these human attacks on these remarkable animals – all drivers of rural economies at home and abroad because of the wildlife-watching they attract.
The laughable part of this latest regulatory maneuvering dance is that the Interior Department is essentially saying that Zimbabwe has strict controls and has a sound wildlife management program. Remember, this is a nation run by a ruthless dictator who has targeted political opponents and average citizens. It is a country where poaching by shooting and poisoning of wildlife has been rampant. And it is a country that has a notorious pay-to-play approach – offering up animals to the highest bidder. In the middle of a political crisis of the worst order there, the U.S. government is working not to improve governance and promote the democratic process in Zimbabwe, but to open the door for Americans to join in the pillaging of that nation’s extraordinary wildlife.
What also defies understanding is, why would the U.S. government allow American trophy hunters to import lion trophies when they are unlikely to find an airline that will carry them into the country. After the killing of Cecil, 43 airlines, including all major U.S. carriers, said they would no longer ship lion trophies in the cargo holds of their planes.
African elephants and African lions drive billions of dollars of economic activity in Africa. But they drive that activity only when they are alive. Killing them deducts from their populations, diminishes wildlife-watching experiences for others, and robs the countries of Africa of its greatest resources.
The folly that the killing helps lions and elephants is just that – pure folly. We’ll see the agency in court.