Unlikely Trophies: Big Game Hunting and Conservation Regulation

Yisel Rivera
Associate Editor
Loyola University Chicago School of Law, J.D. 2019

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (“USFWS”), a federal agency, has recently moved to issue permits allowing hunters to bring back their trophies from Zambia and Zimbabwe into the United States. Trophy hunting is the classified as legal shooting of animals under official government license for sport or enjoyment. Typically, as a reward and/or prize, the hunter gets to take home the “trophy”—the animal carcass or its remains. However, not all species can be hunted and there are restrictions on where and when the hunting can happen, in addition to limitations on the weapons that can be used for the kill.

Restrictions on trophy hunting

The USFWS proposed permits specifically apply to leonine and elephant remains hunted from 2016-2018, with two trophies allowed per hunter. Additionally, some countries have a limit on what percentage of endangered species to be killed in the wild for sport. The restrictions established in the multilateral Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species also come into play with the import of trophies.

However, when importing exotic trophies to America, big game hunters must be aware of an additional set of laws. Both elephants and lions are covered under the Endangered Species Act. African elephants are classified as “vulnerable” to extinction under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, a step just below endangered; the same protection was extended to African lions in 2015. America is bound by the Endangered Species Act, and the law permits importing exotic trophies if USFWS finds that the hunting of the animal contributes to the survival of the species. Both goals are explicitly referenced in the Act to ensure that “hunters are contributing to the conservation of lions in the wild by participating in hunting programs that provide a clear conservation benefit and contribute to the long-term survival of species in the wild.” Even with this restriction, the U.S. legally imports more than 126,000 animal trophies every year.

In 2014, under President Barack Obama, a ban of elephant ivory was enforced because of a lack of data on conservation efforts in Zimbabwe. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently reversed its position, stating it is satisfied with Zimbabwe’s conservation of elephants and believes killing for sport can be beneficial for the species by providing the local communities with incentives to conserve elephants. The ban was set to be lifted because Zimbabwe had enacted a national elephant management plan and pointed to improvements in tracking hunting activity and “a more systematic, scientific approach to establish national quotas”.  However, President Trump put a hold on the ban by tweeting, “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!”

Two days later, Trump went on to tweet: “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”.

Making the case for regulatory restrictions 

The news of USFWS relaxing its stance on lion and elephant imports was condemned by Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society, who stated that Zimbabwe’s big game hunting scene was already rife with corruption. USFWS’ efforts merely served to undercut proper management and fuel “the pillaging of that nation’s extraordinary wildlife”. However, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a respected organization that sets the conservation status for all species, has aligned itself with USFWS in support of the notion that sport hunting will benefit both the animals and the people of Zimbabwe and Zambia.

The truth of the matter is nearer to Pacelle’s vision than the International Union’s. Apart from the civil unrest that currently exists in Zimbabwe, the hunting-safari business does not employ a lot of people, and the money from fees that makes itself to the villagers is miniscule. Trophy hunting amounts to less than 1% of tourism revenue in the eight African countries that permit it, according to a report by an Australian economic-analysis firm for Humane Society International. For such negligible gains, the message these trophies send to locals is problematic: they are unable to kill these animals even under great necessity, but wealthy westerners are allowed to do so, even when the practice is destructive to the animal populations.

The implications are not only social and economic. Between 2007-2014, the number of elephants in the wild dropped 30%, in large part due to poaching and sport hunting. Already, there was been a writ of habeas corpus filed on behalf of three elephants by Steven Wise, an animal-rights attorney. Wise argues that the animals are “legal persons: with a right to bodily liberty. If he succeeds and elephants are acknowledged as legal persons, a term already given to corporations in U.S. courts, the development would exasperate hunting efforts, not to mention importation. The lawsuit calls on various scientific studies that have recognized elephants’ cognitive abilities, emotional and empathetic natures, complex social lives, life-long learning, and memory skills. “Taken together, the research makes it clear elephants are autonomous beings who have the capacity to choose how to live their lives as elephants,” explains Wise. Large male elephants are sought by trophy hunters in South Africa, Namibia, Cameroon, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Gabon, and Mozambique under the mistaken belief that older males are reproductively senile. However, research has recognized that older elephants are a population’s primary breeders. “By living to an older age, [older males show that] they have the traits for longevity and good health to pass on to their offspring,” explains Cynthia Moss, the leader of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya since 1972. “Killing these males compromises the next generation of the population.”

Americans hunting abroad have to comply with U.S. restrictions and regulations to import their trophies onto American soil. Therefore, whatever regulation proposed by the USFWS must enact the legal principles and directives of American conservation. The proposed permits do not demonstrate any clear conservation benefit, and there is no indication that allowing increased hunting will contribute to the long-term survival of species in the wild. President Trump should disallow USFWS’ relaxation of import standards for big game trophies—while it may not be the “horror show” he claims, as regulation, it is inconsistent with the law that authorizes it.