It’s not often that President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed is the voice of reason and compassion, but on the issue of trophy hunting it makes more sense than his own Department of the Interior.
Trump put on hold the department’s initial decision to reverse an Obama-era ban and allow the importation of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia. In a tweet, Trump referred to trophy hunting as a “horror show.” He said he would be “very hard-pressed” to conclude that such hunting advances the cause of conservation, the justification for the decision.
Trump, who has publicly dissented in the past from the notorious trophy hunting of his own sons, is right. In this case, government by tweet is better than the alternative, and more in keeping with the interests of the most majestic creatures on this Earth.
The African elephant population is in historic decline, driven by the loss of habitat and poaching. Early in the 20th century, there were more than 10 million elephants. Now there are about 350,000. The killing still proceeds apace. A 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that 100,000 elephants had been killed by poachers in a three-year period from 2010 to 2012, and the Central African population had declined by 64 percent over a decade. In one orgy of destruction in 2012, poachers killed more than 300 elephants in a national park in Cameroon with AK-47s and grenades.
Trophy hunting, which is licensed and regulated, is not illegal poaching. It also isn’t a reputable practice. Or it shouldn’t be.
Elephants are highly intelligent and social creatures. They really do have extraordinary memories. They have families. They mourn their dead. They aren’t simply walking tusks waiting to be mounted on someone’s office wall. Gunning them down for bragging rights, or to cross an item off a bucket list, or to post a photo with a carcass on Instagram or Facebook is thoughtless and cruel.
The argument that trophy hunting is a boon to conservation is hard to credit, and a little too convenient. Why did the hunter pay tens of thousands of dollars to travel halfway around the world to kill an elephant and chop off its head? Why, for the good of elephants, of course.
To have any chance of aiding in conservation and not fueling corruption, trophy hunting has to be carefully managed. It beggars belief that the government of Zimbabwe — long ruled by a monstrous dictator, Robert Mugabe, who has apparently resigned after a military coup — will be a responsible steward of program in behalf of animals. The government of Zimbabwe has never managed to be a responsible steward of programs related to human beings.
Trophy hunting runs counter to the global campaign against the ivory trade, which is at the root of the poaching. We have finally prevailed on the Chinese, long the worst offender on ivory, to begin to shut down its markets. It would be bizarre to turn around and say that any schmuck with money to burn and no better way to entertain himself can waltz into the U.S. with elephant tusks.
Trophy hunting is now the exception rather than the rule in African countries. Botswana, with the largest population of elephants, banned hunting in 2014. Kenya prohibited it back in the 1970s. Hunting bans are hardly a magical solution to the devastation in elephant populations. Yet wildlife tourism that doesn’t involve destroying a scarce and endangered resource seems a better long-term economic bet.
After the initial decision to lift the trophy ban was announced, Trump may have been moved to speak out by heart-rending images on TV of elephants getting slaughtered. If so, it was an admirable reaction. When an elephant — a creature that means no harm and is deeply affected by trauma and loss — is poisoned or gunned down for fun or profit, it’s worth asking: Who’s really the animal?