US conservation groups sue over Lion and Elephant trophy import confusion
Louzel Lombard Steyn
24 November 2017

Two major US conservation NGOs are suing the Trump administration for allowing American hunters to import elephant and lion trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Two major US conservation NGOs are suing the Trump administration for allowing American hunters to import elephant and lion trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Amid confusion after the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) on 16 November 2017 lifted the 2014 Obama-administration ban on the importation of trophies from two African countries, the US Center for Biological Diversity and Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are instituting legal action to reinstitute the ban. Following an international outcry, President Trump himself backtracked on the decision via Twitter, saying the re-evaluated “big-game trophy decision will be announced next week but [it]will be very hard pressed to change [his]mind”.

According to Tanya Sanerib, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, “Trump’s abrupt backpedaling after public outcry, while appreciated, shows how arbitrary this deplorable decision was.”

Despite the apparent u-turn, the new policies allowing imports of elephant and lion trophies remain in effect and the lawsuit aims to protect the two species and resolve confusion created by the administration’s contradictory announcements.

The reversal of the lion trophy import ban has been globally criticized in view of African lions’ dwindling numbers, with population estimates as low as 20 000.

According to Humane Society International (HSI), “Zimbabwe and Zambia lack an institutional and scientific infrastructure to properly manage elephant and lion hunting, and to ensure that revenues from the activity translate into conservation benefits.”

Masha Kalinina, International Trade Policy Specialist with Humane Society International (HSI), also states that the best available science and information on lion management demonstrate that trophy hunting of lions in these countries does not help their conservation.

This void in ethical conservation practice has been illustrated many times, but especially in Zimbabwe in 2015 with the controversial and illegal killing of Cecil the Lion, which was lured out of a national park and shot by a US hunter Walter Palmer. Two years later, in July 2017, the son of Cecil, Xanda, was also killed by a trophy hunter in Zimbabwe under similarly dubious circumstances.

The USFWS’s reasoning for the 2014 ban on importing trophies from Zimbabwe specifically acknowledged that trophy hunting there did not contribute to the conservation of these species. In 2015, the USFWS also listed the African lion as a threatened species and placed tighter restrictions on bringing back heads, paws, and other body parts.

With the announcement of the reversal of the ban, however, the USFWS quietly published new guidelines for the legal importation of body parts of lions shot in the two African countries.

According to conservation group, Blood Lions, current restrictions on lion trophies from captive bred lions, implemented in 2016, are still in place. They confirm that canned hunting decreased significantly largely due to the USFWS ban on trophy imports from captive bred lions, but state that a move to lift this ban and that on wild lions in countries where corruption and ethical protocol is questionable would be detrimental to this already threatened species.

“It is critical to protect lion populations and their rapidly depleting habitat and protected areas,” Blood Lions states.

According to Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the reversing of the import ban only “rolls out the red carpet to the next Walter Palmer.”

Zimbabwe’s lion population was estimated at roughly 703 lions in 2014. In 2016, the IUCN found lions in Africa to be vulnerable to extinction noting an estimated 43% decline of African lion populations over 21 years. With the exception of two conservancies, all unfenced lion populations in Zimbabwe have declined over the past decade and today fewer than 300 truly wild adult male lions remain, HSI states.

In Zambia too, a 2012 study found three Zambian national park lion populations to be male depleted as a likely result of poorly managed trophy hunting. The 2002 lion population estimates ranged between 1 500 and 3 199 lions, but these estimates decreased dramatically by 2006 ranging between only 800 and 1 980 lions.

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