Allowing trophies from elephant hunting undercuts fight against poaching

Elephant trophy hunting had been increasing worldwide from 2004 through 2012 (CITES data is incomplete for 2013 and 2014 and does not accurately reflect the total number of trophy trade in those two years). Source: Killing for Trophies: An Analysis of Global Trophy Hunting Trade.The following piece first appeared as a Scientific American guest blog. –The editors

In early June, the Obama Administration at long last finalized its new regulations on ivory sales in the US. The comprehensive package—years in the making—aims to close a market that significantly contributes to global demand for ivory, which in turn drives elephant poaching in Africa and Asia at catastrophic levels. Wildlife conservation and animal protection NGOs responded positively by and large, although a vocal minority of Americans who profit from ivory sales reacted with disappointment and anger. What wasn’t picked up though by US media was the reaction of the world’s largest consumer of ivory: China. At the US/China Strategic & Economic Dialogue, which (not coincidentally) happened just one week after the US announcement, China’s pointed response could be summed up in a few words: “That’s great, but what are you doing about your sport-hunted elephant trophies?”

Many would take issue with this reply given China’s well known consumption of imperiled species for traditional Asian medicines, luxury goods, and exotic cuisine. However, it is just the most recent in a string of tit-for-tat political call-outs by the US and China, both pushing the other to go further and faster in cleaning up their ivory markets.

It started in November 2013, when the US crushed six tons of confiscated ivory in Denver; just two months later China crushed six point one tons in Guangzhou. The US quickly followed this with several ivory policy revisions in February 2014 (the first stage in the rule changes that culminated last month). In September 2015, President Obama and China President Xi jointly pledged to enact “near-total bans” on ivory sales, imports and exports. Three weeks later, China took its first step with a one-year ban on imports of sport-hunted African elephant ivory, and most recently, announced that they will provide a timeline for implementing their own ban on domestic ivory markets by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, the final US regulations that just came out—while very strong on limiting commercial ivory imports, exports, and interstate trade—fall short of China in one key regard: sport-hunted elephant trophies. The new US rules merely limit hunters to bringing back no more than two trophy elephant specimens (or up to four tusks) annually. And while this is better than the previous unlimited import quota, it is arguably unreasonable to allow any elephant trophies into the US, given our widely proclaimed commitment to protecting what is left of the plummeting global elephant population.

It is hard to deny that the US has a trophy hunting problem. A report issued last month by my organization, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, found the US imports more hunting trophies than any other nation in the world, by a large margin: some 150,000 hunting trophies between 2004-2013, accounting for a staggering 71 percent of global imports, or about 15 times more than the next nation on the list.

READ: Killing for Trophies: Report analyzes trophy hunting around the world

We outpaced the field on elephant trophies, too—10,240 imported between 2003 and 2012, or over 1,000 per year on average. All those needlessly dead elephants killed by Americans are members of a species we have publicly vowed to protect from extinction.

To be clear: managed hunting of elephants is not a primary cause of the current crisis—poaching linked to illegal ivory markets is the main culprit.

But there is a cognitive dissonance in our policy of allowing elephant trophy imports during this dire time, which undermines our efforts overseas. When we willfully allow rich Americans to go to Africa and shoot—for fun—the same animals that we are trying to shield from poachers, our message of conservation rings hollow. To be sure, there are strong connections between poachers and militant groups in many regions of Africa, but poachers are, just as often, local villagers desperately in need of the money. Poverty is not solved by poaching, and it is not solved by trophy hunting, which is built on shaky economic theory. To say nothing of the animal welfare implications of allowing an intelligent, social, long-lived, slow-reproducing, and family-oriented creature to be killed for sport—even if it’s “only” one or two a year per hunter. 

The new US ivory regulations accomplish much of the Administration’s stated goal: they minimize the US role in the global elephant poaching crisis by restricting our domestic ivory markets. The rules halt all commercial ivory imports (and most commercial exports) and limit interstate sales to genuine antiques and certain other older items with minimal amounts of ivory. These are strong and necessary actions. But the Administration did not take advantage of the opportunity to fully ban the import of elephant trophies, and China is right to call us out on it, just as we are justified in continuing to pressure them to close the considerable commercial ivory markets still operating within China. 

The global community has come to the aid of these remarkable creatures because they cannot stand seeing them brutally killed—and an elephant slain for ivory by poachers is no more or less dead than one shot down by vainglorious foreigners for sport. The difference that trophy advocates would draw is a false one, and the US must tell sport hunters that killing imperiled elephants for fun is wrong, just as poaching them for ivory is wrong, and neither should be tolerated any longer.


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