Reversing the ban on trophy imports to save elephants?

I was scrolling through the Wonkblog on the Washington Post website when this article caught my eye. The title, “The Fish and Wildlife Service said we have to kill elephants to help save them. The data says otherwise.,” caught my eye because of what it seemed to imply: People think that we can save an endangered species by hunting them. That doesn’t sound right, so I decided to click and read on.

The first paragraph of the article states that “Supporters of trophy hunting say that permit fees from the practice, which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars in the case of large game like elephants, can be put toward conservation efforts that help bolster the populations of endangered animals.” Okay, I can see some reasoning in there, but it still doesn’t sound right.

Another big part of this article that caught my eye was the mention that the Trump administration was going to reverse an Obama-era ban on importing African elephant trophies, with the reasoning above being part of the logic behind making this change. That’s something that really bothered me, and probably other people, but I’ll come back to that in a bit.

The Global Elephant Census, which is an effort to track elephant populations in 18 countries in Africa over three years, found that there were about 374,000 elephants remaining in Africa, which was down from an estimated 10 million elephants at the turn of the 20th century and roughly 600,000 from 1989. Those are very dramatic decreases. Seeing these numbers makes it hard to believe that hunting elephants and using permit fees for conservation efforts will do much work.

Elephant Population Falling

What makes this even more worrisome is considering how these conservation fees fit into the economy: how much do they contribute to the economy, and how much of that contribution actually goes to conservation efforts? Economists at Large, an economic analysis firm that is based out of Australia, found that in eight countries, tourism is between 2.8% and 5.1% of the GDP in studied countries, and that trophy hunting makes up, at most, about 0.03% of the GDP. That’s not a lot. What’s more, in 2015 a National Geographic Report found that minimal amounts of revenue from trophy hunting actually went to conservation efforts, with government corruption being cited as one factor (especially in Zimbabwe, which comes up a lot in several places).

So, things aren’t looking great so far: fees from trophy hunting provide a very small percentage of the GDP in 8 countries, and due to several factors, government corruption being the most quoted one, an even smaller amount of that money goes back to animal conservation efforts. I think the logic behind hunting elephants works, but human greed isn’t considered when making these arguments. There’s the assumption that all the money from fees will go to help conservation efforts, but it doesn’t. If that were the case, then maybe it wouldn’t be as bad.

Back to the Trump Administration reversal of the Obama-era ban on importing African elephant trophies: According to Fish and Wildlife Service data that was analyzed by the Humane Society, elephants hunted in Zimbabwe accounted for nearly half of the trophy imports to the United States. After the ban was put in place, imports dropped dramatically, as we can see in the graph below.


This ban has kept law-abiding citizens from contributing to the declining elephant populations for the sake of sport and pride. The article mentions that between 2005 and 2014 American hunters imported an average of nearly 200 elephant trophies each year, and as of 2016, that number had dropped to just three. 200 doesn’t sound like a lot until you consider the already declining number of elephants. 200 trophies each year adds up very quickly. If the ban on trophy imports is reversed, we’re risking going back up to that 200-imports-each-year average, and adding even more deaths to African elephants. We’re risking contributing to the decline in number of African elephants, and likely aiding in their untimely extinction.

These things aren’t great. We should care about not letting this ban reversal go through because even though 200 elephants per year isn’t a huge number (relatively) to be gone each year, but it’s better to have 200 more elephants with the ban than it is to lose an additional 200 elephants without it. Let’s help the elephants, not add on to their already declining numbers.


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