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Why Should Rich White Guys Get to Hang Elephant Heads on Their Walls?

By J. A. Mills

Elephant“Trump administration to reverse ban on elephant trophies from Africa,” read an ABC News headline on November 15.

The first thing I thought—and tweeted—was, “Of course, President Trump lifted the US ban on import of elephant ‘trophies’ from Zimbabwe and Zambia! Don Jr. is a big game hunter!” Apparently, Eric Trump is, too.

The next thing I thought was, “Zimbabwe? Are you kidding me? Where President Robert Mugabe dismisses wildlife conservation as “neocolonialism” and once celebrated his birthday with an elephant barbecue in a display of his disdain? Does the Trump administration really think the Mugabe government puts hunting fees back into conserving wild elephants?”

Then both presidents surprised me. Trump hit pause on elephant trophies and Mugabe resigned after nearly forty years as Zimbabwe’s dictator, albeit reluctantly—and it remains to be seen whether his successor will be much better for wildlife.

“Put big game trophy decision on hold until such time as I review all conservation facts,” Trump tweeted on November 17. “Under study for years. Will update soon with Secretary Zinke. Thank you!” Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke, boss of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, later confirmed he had spoken with the president and the “the issuing of permits is being put on hold.” 

Since then, I have taken time to read the November 17 Federal Register notice announcing the elephant trophy decision for Zimbabwe. Similar decisions were made on elephant trophies from Zambia and lion trophies from both countries. “The US Fish and Wildlife Service has made a finding that the killing of African elephant trophy animals in Zimbabwe, on or after January 21, 2016, and on or before December 31, 2018, will enhance the survival of the African elephant,” it reads. The rest goes onto to explain that issuance of import permits was suspended in April 2014 “due to...insufficient information on the status of elephants in Zimbabwe and on Zimbabwe’s current elephant management program,” which Zimbabwe government officials apparently addressed to the satisfaction of Fish and Wildlife Service officials in the interim.

“This review established that both Zambia and Zimbabwe had met...strict international conservation standards that allowed Americans to resume hunting in those countries,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters. The Obama-era ban on trade in elephant ivory remains in place, she also said. Furthermore, it is important to note that the United States allowed the import of hunting trophies, with proper permits, long before Trump sought the White House. So, there was no “ban” in this case. There was only a hiatus.

Given all of the above, what follows is not what I expected to write. I overreacted. I wrongly slammed President Trump. There appears to have been no collusion or self-dealing between the Trumps and Zinke or the Fish and Wildlife Service on elephant and lion trophies.

That is not to say I agree with allowing the import of trophies—a.k.a. prizes or mementos—from gunning down wild mega fauna in Africa or on any other continent. I do not.

I understand that in some places where the rule of law is strictly enforced and obeyed, revenues from hunting permits do sometimes support conservation. I also understand that there are times when shrinking wildlands cannot support growing wildlife populations, so I get the logic of allowing high-roller hunters to execute the population control method known as “culling.” And, yes, I know that making more room for wildlife is not an option in this human-dominated world.

Spare me the argument about the poor locals whose livelihoods depend on big game hunters. Adam Roberts, a trusted colleague who is now with The Elephant Project, says only about two percent of profits from big game hunting in Africa trickles down to the local people who need it most. “There’s much more money made by ecotourism...[than] hunting tourism,” Roberts recently told WGN Radio. “Studies have shown [that] more than ninety-eight percent of all tourism revenue across the entire African continent comes from wildlife tourism that’s not hunting-based. If we really care about investing in these local economies, we want to do it in a sustainable way, and that’s ecotourism.”

Putting humane considerations aside, my objection to trophy hunting is the same as my objection to killing wild elephants for their ivory, wild bears for their gall bladders, or wild lions and tigers for their bones. These are all just variations on commodifying our world’s most magnificent and threatened species. I have seen firsthand, over many years of investigating illegal wildlife trade, that commodification too often leads to the slippery slope toward extinction.   

Here is the bottom line as I see it: If we want to stop the extinction of wildlife, then we need to stop the commodification of wildlife altogether—not on a case-by-case basis. One man’s “trophy” might be an elephant’s head on the wall of his den, while another’s might be an intricately carved ivory tusk in a glass display case, or medicines made from elephant skin to treat his teenager’s runaway acne.

Chinese ivory carvers have every right to ask why rich people from the United States are allowed to shoot down elephants for wall décor while their centuries-old craft is dying because of the prohibition on commercial trade in ivory tusks. For decades, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners have been asking me why hunters can kill bears legally in North American forests while TCM doctors can’t legally buy gall bladders from wild bears to treat dying patients. These are valid and pivotal questions.

One answer could be that there aren’t that many people who want to shoot elephants for sport, while there are millions, perhaps billions, of people who covet objects made from ivory or medicines made with elephant parts. The first is sustainable, while the other two are not. That’s why some Asian countries started farming bears to harvest the bile in their gall bladders. However, despite the fact that there are now tens of thousands of farmed bears producing a glut of bile, some consumers with enough cash still insist on the highest quality bile, which can only be found in wild bears. In the end, bear farms just sustained—and even enlarged—demand, and every wild bear on Earth continues to have a handsome price on its head.

You can argue who should be allowed to kill wildlife and why in dozens of different ways. People have been doing so for years. And during all those years of debate, only one thing has proven true: Double standards don’t work for wildlife. The only thing that will work is if everyone in our increasingly globalized human community plays by the same rules, just as we all will have to do if we are to prevent catastrophic climate change. If we want any one form of commodification of wildlife to stop, then it must all be stopped, for everyone—even rich white guys.


About the Author 

J. A. MillsJ. A. Mills has worked for TRAFFIC, World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, and Save the Tiger Fund. She is now a consultant to the MacArthur Foundation and lives in Washington, DC. Visit her website at Follow her on Twitter at @JAMillsAuthor.