On November 8, 2017, the US Department of the Interior announced the formation of an “International Wildlife Conservation Council” whose chief objective would be to increase public awareness of the “economic benefits that result from US citizens traveling to foreign nations to engage in hunting.” Thirty-eight members of Congress wrote Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke urging him to abandon the idea and calling trophy hunting “unethical, unpopular, and of questionable conservation value.”
One week later, the US Fish and Wildlife Service stoked public outrage by reversing a 2014 Obama administration ban on the importation of sport-hunted elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia. (The 2014 policy was enacted after the same agency noted that it could not find that the sport-killing of an African elephant, a species listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), “would enhance the survival of the population”—a key requirement of the ESA.) Moreover, in October, the USFWS had quietly lifted restrictions on lion trophies from Zambia and Zimbabwe as well, even though all populations of the African lion remain listed either as “threatened” or “endangered” under the ESA.
But then, on November 17 and 19, President Donald Trump flipped the script and caused much puzzlement with these two tweets:
Put big game trophy decision on hold until such time as I review all conservation facts. Under study for years. Will update soon with Secretary Zinke. Thank you!
Big-game trophy decision will be announced next week but will be very hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of Elephants or any other animal.
In a January 28 interview with Piers Morgan, the president again blasted trophy imports, while suggesting that the money generated by these hunting expeditions actually ends up lining the pockets of government officials rather than supporting the intended conservation efforts. Taking credit for reinstituting the 2014 import ban, the president said:
I didn’t want elephants killed and stuffed and have the tusks brought back into this [country] and people can talk all they want about preservation and all of the things they’re saying where the money goes towards—well, money WAS going—in that case, going to a government which was probably taking the money, ok? I turned that order around. You know, that was an order. I totally turned it around. Were you shocked I did it?
In the same interview, referring specifically to the USFWS’ November decision to reverse the 2014 ban, the president again highlighted his administration’s varying views on trophy hunting:
I thought it was terrible. That was done by a very high level government person. As soon as I heard about it, I turned it around. That same day—not even a day went by. No, I was not believing in [the conservation argument].
It is clear that as the populations of both the African lion and elephant plummet, a ban on trophy imports is warranted. As of this writing, there has been no follow-up announcement. But to have Donald Trump, whose two sons are notorious trophy hunters, call trophy hunting a “horror show” left everyone reeling. In the meantime, a court case has thrown the original ban into question on procedural grounds, so a final resolution on these imports remains anyone’s guess.