Controversy Swirls Around the Recent U.S. Suspension of Sport-Hunted Elephant Trophies


Christina Russo, A Voice for Elephants, National Geographic

Date Published
See link for photos. 
Battle lines are being drawn after the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) announcement last month to suspend import of elephant trophies from Tanzania and Zimbabwe for the remainder of 2014.

The decision was spurred by the catastrophic poaching of Africa’s elephants and the fact that in these two countries, according to FWS, “additional killing of elephants…even if legal, is not sustainable.”

The announcement comes on the heels of a U.S. ban on the commercial trade of elephant ivory. That ban includes a new rule, expected to come into force in June, that limits the number of African elephant trophies that can be imported into the U.S. to two per hunter per year.

FWS still allows imports of elephant trophies from other African nations, including Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa—although Botswana has banned sport hunting, as has Zambia. (See: No Trophy Hunting in Botswana and Zambia?)

In Tanzania, “questionable management practices, a lack of effective law enforcement, and weak governance have resulted in uncontrolled poaching and catastrophic population declines.” For example, the Selous—Africa’s largest protected area—“has lost 66 percent of its elephants in the past five years,” according to FWS.

In Zimbabwe, FWS points to the 2013 killing of upwards of 300 elephants by cyanide poisoning—a widely publicized slaughter that took place in Hwange National Park. “Information on the status of Zimbabwe’s elephant population, management plans, hunting polices and regulations is limited,” FWS notes. The information available raises “significant concerns about the long-term survival of [its] elephants.”

“Rash Decision”

A number of hunting organizations have protested the suspension. Safari Club International (SCI), an influential hunting advocacy group, has filed a lawsuit and a preliminary injunction to lift the importation ban. SCI says its lawsuit “attacks the inadequacy of the information on which the FWS based its decision and the Service’s failure to consider the beneficial impacts that U.S. hunters and sport hunting have on African elephant conservation.”

SCI has also called upon its members to lobby on Capitol Hill May 8 to protest the suspension. Meanwhile, SCI also says that hunting, park, and safari representatives from Zimbabwe and Tanzania will meet with U.S. officials to discuss the suspension.

Conservation Force (CF), a Louisiana-based hunting advocacy group, responded similarly. John Jackson III, the chairman and president, calls the suspension  “wholly irresponsible” and says the move came by surprise. “There was no warning of notice to the two countries, the CITES Secretariat, the African Elephant Specialist Group of IUCN or the hunting community, only a press release after the fact that gives too little explanation.”

Furthermore, Jackson believes that the number of elephants poisoned in Hwange is highly exaggerated and points out that the poaching was “discovered, reported and acted upon by the hunting community… and thanks to the hunting operator in the area… the poachers were caught and are serving stiff prison sentences!”

What is a Trophy?

Many Americans might be shocked to learn that U.S. hunters still kill African elephants for sport.

In fact, several hundred sport-hunted elephant trophies have been imported into the U.S. each year during the past decade, according to FWS. Trophies consist of almost any elephant part, including the head, tusks, skull, feet, tails, belly skins, and femur bones.

CF’s Jackson says more than 11 million big-game hunting licenses are issued in the U.S. annually. About one thousand hunters received a permit to kill elephants.

Whether or not a trophy can be imported into the U.S. depends on the conservation status of the country’s elephants. For trophies from CITES Appendix I elephants (populations in danger of extinction, such as in Tanzania and Zambia), FWS must issue a CITES import permit and “make the additional finding that the import is not detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.” (Although there are now limitations on trophy imports, there are no limitations on hunting elephants).

Elephants in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa fall under Appendix II, meaning that those populations are not currently considered in danger of extinction. For Appendix II elephant trophies, only a CITES export permit is required. FWS must determine, however, that the import of an elephant trophy would “enhance the survival or propagation of the species,” says Tim Van Norman, chief of FWS’s permits branch.

Van Norman says this determination is made by reviewing such factors as possible threats to populations, current population estimates, management plans, local community involvement, and if any funds are generated by the import, how they’ll be used to bolster conservation. “Obtaining the information on management programs may entail a lengthy collaborative process between the country of export and the Service,” Van Norman says. (More FWS information about the elephant trade can be found here.)

“Common Sense Limits”

Between 2009 and 2013 FWS denied only 11 of the 972 completed applications for the import of sport-hunted elephant trophies.

But given the current poaching levels in Africa, many ask: Should sport hunting of elephants be allowed at all?

Absolutely, says John Jackson, who sees no conflict. “Hunting,” he says, “is part of the national action plans in each of the countries—the formal plans to control poaching and grow the elephant populations.”

Peter LaFontaine, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), in Washington, D.C., strongly disagrees. He applauds the suspension of trophies from Zimbabwe and Tanzania, along with the two-trophy limit per hunter.

“We haven’t always seen eye to eye with trophy hunting and FWS,” he says. “In the past there were no limits, and you would see hunters bringing back 20, 30, 40, and even 100 tusks at one time. And this is not 50 years ago—this is recently.”

LaFontaine says Americans in general don’t favor the hunting of elephants. A nationwide poll by IFAW found that 80 percent of Americans would be comfortable with a ban on ivory if it helped elephant populations recover. “Since there’s no real difference between sticking an elephant head on your wall or ivory,” LaFontaine says, “the idea there is a difference between trophy hunting and poaching is absurd.”

Adam Roberts, the CEO of Born Free USA, another longstanding animal advocacy group, concurs. He says the new rules represent “common sense limits. Trophy hunting that threatens endangered wildlife is not real conservation.”

But, he adds, the government is giving a contradictory message in terms of the overall ivory ban and its public stance against elephant poaching. “A poacher is not allowed to kill an elephant and shop the ivory overseas. But an American hunter is allowed to engage in the same slaughter and movement of ivory?”

“The goal,” he says emphatically, “should be no more killing. Full stop.”


Depending on who’s talking, the marriage between trophy hunting and wildlife conservation is either very beneficial or a complete sham.

The recent auction of a black rhino hunt sponsored by the Dallas Safari Club (DSC) demonstrates how incendiary sport hunting can be. (See: “Death Threats Seen Over Rhino Hunt Auction”).

The hunting organization SCI proclaims itself: “The Leader in Protecting the Freedom to Hunt and in Promoting Wildlife Conservation Worldwide.” And CF’s motto is: “A Force for Wildlife Conservation, Wild  Places and Our Way of Life.”

According to one well-known hunting operator in Zimbabwe, a 21-day elephant hunt costs $1,100 a day, with an additional $15,000 for the elephant trophy. Upwards of $80,000 for a hunt isn’t unheard of.

Hunting advocacy groups and expedition companies in Africa cite contributions to local communities as part of their conservation effort. Jackson says that CF partners with operators throughout Africa and “funnels benefits to local people in programs in which they participate as decision-makers. In those cases, the tourist safari hunters donate sums to Conservation Force and we put it to work for the community.” According to Jackson, CF has built 58 schools and 12 medical facilities in Tanzania.

Last year, IFAW, Born Free, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), and the Humane Society International (HSI) commissioned a study to examine contributions by hunting organizations to local communities.

“We found that only about three percent of the hunting revenue actually goes to local community development,” IFAW’s LaFontaine says. And “almost none of the money spent on expeditions accrues to local communities. Instead, it remains with the (mostly foreign) tour outfitters and travel companies, in urban centers, central government agencies and, often, bribes for officials.”

LaFontaine argues that ecotourism, like photographic wildlife safaris, is more practical—and lucrative—than sport hunts. In Botswana, for example, “ecotourism is 12 percent of GDP. It’s astonishing. Nowhere does sport hunting account for a significant amount of GDP, and only a very small fraction of total tourism revenues.”

Furthermore, he says, “trophy hunting is in direct conflict with other activities that are truly sustainable, including wildlife viewing. People don’t want to go to a landscape that has been hunted free of its animals.”

SCI publicly responded to the commissioned report, calling it “inaccurate and flawed.” SCI also says the report “asks the wrong questions about the role that trophy hunting plays in the financial support of local African communities.” (The full SCI response can be viewed here).

African Perspectives

Anthony Kaschula is a fourth generation Zimbabwean who now works as a professional photographic safari guide and owns Gonarezhou Bush Camps. He supports the FWS suspension of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe because he worries that the hunting system in his country is mismanaged and “unsustainable.”

In the past, sport hunting of elephants within Zimbabwe’s national parks has been illegal. Except for a loophole that allows park officials to hunt elephants for meat. Recently, according to Kachsula, park leaders have been selling these “ration” hunts to professional hunters, and “the guidelines are being transgressed—including that trophy quality elephants are being hunted and there are reports of these trophies being exported, which is illegal.”

Kaschula says some hunters are also luring the elephants outside parks into the surrounding buffer zones or villages, where hunting is allowed. “Hunters might put out artificial water sources,” Kaschula says. Or hunters, knowing that an elephant might eat from a village maize crop, will wait nearby with spotlights to kill the animal.

How would hunters even know an elephant is eating the crops? Kaschula: “The hunters give villagers cell phones and say, ‘Here, call me when an elephant is near.’”

Charl Beukes is a former big-game professional hunter who has run hunting safaris in Tanzania, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. He now manages Croc Valley Camp, a photographic safari outfit in the Luangwa Valley, Zambia.

“No one has yet come up with an exact art or formula that benefits both people and wildlife,” says Beukes, who’s bluntly pessimistic about the future. “Wildlife is doomed. Wildlife is at the bottom of the barrel from governments, who see more pressing things like water and education. Wildlife, sadly, has to survive by itself.”

Beukes agrees with the FWS suspension, but he believes that sport hunting has some benefits. With photographic safaris, he points out, success is incumbent upon tourists seeing a high volume of wildlife. But trophy hunters will sometimes travel into less frequented areas that have fewer animals. If it’s a “reputable” hunting company, Beukes says, “it will spend money on anti-poaching units in those remote areas. So if you remove those hunting organizations, you’re left with a void.”

Andy Hogg agrees with Beukes—to a point. Hogg, who also lives in Zambia, is the founder of the Bushcamp Company, a highly regarded, award-winning photographic safari company based in South Luangwa. “Hunters will say they have a presence in an area—and yes, when they’re there, it is a poaching deterrent.” But, Hogg explains, it’s sporadic and seasonal. “A lot of the time it’s a one-man operation, and then they go back to town. They also leave at the end of the season when the rain starts—and in fact, that’s when a lot of our poaching [in Zambia] happens.”

The Bushcamp Company, Hogg says, is committed to conservation. “We’ve funded 400 kids to go to school and created a feeding program for 1,600 kids a day. Today an American woman funded 60 mattresses to help us build a girls’ dormitory.” He added that the company had also just pledged one million dollars over five years for the South Luangwa Conservation Society.

Save the Big Bulls

According to Hogg, the Luangwa Valley had 100,000 elephants in the 1970s and early 80s. “Now,” he says, “we have less than 20,000, and the whole of Luangwa doesn’t have one 100-pound tusker.”

He says that makes it of paramount importance to keep any big bulls—a prime target of sport hunters—alive. “A bull elephant doesn’t necessarily stay in one area—he’s a migratory creature. That bull is a gene pool, and he’ll cross between Zimbabwe and Botswana. And that elephant is indeed being seen by photographic people.”

Kaschula agrees. He says a well-known bull he has photographed many times was recently killed by sport hunters. “The hunters waited on an island and shot [the elephant] at first light as he and some 20 other bulls were making their way back [to the park] after feeding under the safety of darkness. “It wasn’t illegal,” Kaschula says. “But the ethics aren’t right.”

These bulls must be fully protected, Kaschula says. “Once an elephant reaches a certain weight [of tusks], the animal should simply be considered ‘royal game,’ and completely untouchable. When you see those big old gentle tuskers, when they have lived that long, they should be given the protection they deserve.”

Never the Twain Shall Meet

Conservation Force’s John Jackson has been on 38 elephant hunts and killed 14 older bull elephants (he says he would never kill any young or middle-aged bulls). He characterizes hunting elephants as “the most intimate, real relationship one can have with elephant. Nothing else in life is more satisfying than an elephant hunt. The actual hunt tests one’s physical capacity, endurance, and limits, as well as one’s courage and strength of character.”

Hunters, Jackson adds, are devoted to saving elephants. “Whether non-hunters understand it or not. We are as obsessive about saving the elephant as one can be. No one cares more.”

For many, elephants’ social complexity, intelligence, emotional depth, cooperative nature, self-awareness, and devotion to family are reason enough to ban all killing of them.

Cynthia Moss, who runs the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, in Kenya, has been studying and protecting elephants since 1968. She says she’s “heard these same arguments forever.”

“I’ve talked to many hunters,” Moss says. “They claim they love animals more than any researcher and that they really understand animals. They also add that they are the real conservationists because they want to keep them here to hunt them.”

Over the years, sport hunters have shot and killed three of the Amboseli elephants: M1-40, also known as Sabore; an elephant named RBG; and one of Moss’s all-time favorites, Sleepy.

Moss sees firsthand the impact a death of an elephant has on the survivors, especially the death
of a female. “The killing of a female is probably more devastating for other individual elephants because they live in tight knit families. In Amboseli, you’ll see a family of 20 individuals—grandmothers, mothers, nieces, cousins, sisters. They stay in the family their whole lives and are very bonded.”

When a female is killed, the repercussions can last a very long time, Moss says. If the mother of a three- or four-year-old calf is killed, the calf will die. The survival rate of elephants up to 20 years old is even compromised if their mother is hunted. And if a matriarch is shot, “it’s absolutely devastating. It will have ramifications for years.”

Moss says that over her decades of work she has never once been persuaded by any of the arguments in favor of sport hunting.

“The loss of an elephant is a tragedy,” she says. “And killing an elephant or any other animal for fun is abhorrent.”

The Bushcamp Company’s Andy Hogg used to be a professional hunter, but now, he says he’s “totally about the photographic safari. I just couldn’t stand the killing any more. I struggle with the ethics of it—I struggle to understand it. And honestly, I’m not sure how anyone can kill an elephant.”

Looking ahead, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it will “reevaluate the situation in Tanzania and Zimbabwe for elephant trophies taken in calendar year 2015.”