There is bad timing, and then there is this. Last week an apparent military coup placed Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in custody, ushering in a new period of political uncertainty. A few days later, the Trump administration announced that Zimbabwe’s government could be trusted to manage its elephant population responsibly, and so a ban on importing Zimbabwean elephant trophies - that is, body parts of animals U.S. hunters have slaughtered - would be lifted. Fortunately, President Donald Trump said Friday that he would review this unwise decision, which ought not to stand.
African elephants are a species in crisis, and the U.S. government should not do anything that could endanger them further. Counterintuitively, well-managed trophy-hunting could, on balance, help fund enforcement efforts and local communities that might otherwise poach nearby animals. But, as House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce, R-Calif., said, “in this moment of turmoil, I have zero confidence that the regime - which for years has promoted corruption at the highest levels - is properly managing and regulating conservation programs.”
This and other pushback appeared to prompt Trump’s welcome intervention. Any sensible review would recommend keeping the ban, for now. The military takeover calls into question who controls the Zimbabwean government, let alone whether it would be committed to responsible herd management.
Conservation advocates say Zimbabwe used to have decent programs. The U.S. government could have more confidence then that the heads and tusks hunters brought back were legally hunted under requirements that the hunt did not further endanger the already precarious African elephant population. But, environmentalists lament, in the past decade Zimbabwe’s deteriorating political situation and accompanying corruption undermined the government’s stewardship. The Obama administration in 2015 banned elephant trophies from Zimbabwe, while continuing to allow their import from places with stronger governance, such as South Africa.
In seeking to reverse that call, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service argued that Zimbabwe’s government offered convincing assurances that it has a management program in place based on good data with which to impose sensible hunting limits. Missing, though, was evidence the program is working on the ground - or a sense of what the current political instability means for conservation policy. In fact, the Fish and Wildlife Service admitted that a European Union study on Zimbabwe’s program is not yet complete. Yet it decided to move ahead anyway - until, that is, Trump suddenly and thankfully halted the move.
A trophy ban in itself could not save the African elephant. The largest threat continues to be poaching for large-scale tusk harvesting to satisfy the international ivory trade. Recent moves by the United States and China to fight this trade - by cracking down on when and where ivory can be sold - are important elements in any strategy to stabilize and enhance the elephant population. But the trophy ban has done good. The threat of an import ban creates a large incentive for African countries seeking tourist dollars from American safari hunters to ensure their hunts are sustainable. Now is not the time for the U.S. government to take the pressure off Zimbabwe.