On 15 November 2017, several news organizations reported that President Donald Trump had reversed Obama-era conservation efforts involving the import of ivory from Zimbabwe and Zambia, sparking outrage among animal rights supporters. CNN attributed the regulatory change to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:
US authorities will remove restrictions on importing African elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia.
That means Americans will soon be able to hunt the endangered big game, an activity that garnered worldwide attention when a Minnesota dentist took Cecil, perhaps the world's most famous lion, near a wildlife park in Zimbabwe.
A US Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman said the move will allow the two African countries to include US sport hunting as part of their management plans for the elephants and allow them to put "much-needed revenue back into conservation."
Critics, however, note the restrictions were created by the Obama administration in 2014 because the African elephant population had dropped. The animals are listed in the US Endangered Species Act, which requires the US government to protect endangered species in other countries.
The 2014 restriction on importing elephant trophies included those that were hunted legally in Zimbabwe and Zambia. However, a provision of the Endangered Species Act allows for restricted activities such as the import of animal trophies if they are undertaken "to enhance the propagation or survival of the affected species."
In order to fulfill its obligations under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the United States restricts the number of legally-hunted elephant trophies to two per year.
Safari Club International, a hunting advocacy group that filed a lawsuit challenging the 2014 restriction, first announced the regulation change on their web site.
In November 2017, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service confirmed the change to the 2914 regulations and explained the rationale behind it:
Legal, well-regulated sport hunting as part of a sound management program can benefit certain species by providing incentives to local communities to conserve those species and by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the hunting and management programs for African elephants in Zimbabwe and Zambia will enhance the survival of the species in the wild. These enhancement findings are required prior to allowing import of these trophies under Endangered Species Act regulations. The finding applies to elephants hunted in Zimbabwe on or after January 21, 2016, and on or before December 31, 2018, and to elephants hunted in Zambia during calendar years 2016, 2017 and 2018, for applications that meet all other applicable permitting requirements.
On 17 November 2017, the Trump administration announced that it would place a "hold" on reversing the ban, pending further review, and a few days later President Trump tweeted about the issue:
Big-game trophy decision will be announced next week but will be very hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of Elephants or any other animal.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 19, 2017
However, the President appeared to have been at odds with others in his administration over this issue, as NPR reported in March 2018:
"I didn't want elephants killed and stuffed and have the tusks brought back into this [country]. And people can talk all they want about preservation and all other things that they're saying," [Trump] told British broadcaster Piers Morgan, referring to the argument proffered by his own interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, and others that fees paid by big-game hunters could help fund conservation programs. "In that case, the money was going to a government that was probably taking the money, OK?"
"That was done by a very high-level government person," he added in reference to the agency's decision. "As soon as I heard about it, I turned it around."
But Trump appears to have lost that battle in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which in December 2017 ruled in a case brought by the National Rifle Association and Safari Club International that the Obama-era regulations had been improperly implemented
Among other aspects, the two organizations challenged the Endangered Species Act [ESA] findings on which the regulation was based and argued that the Fish and Wildlife Service "impermissibly relied on standards that are more stringent than the statutory requirements in the ESA."
That ruling already appears to have affected a number of other endangered species trophies. The Fish and Wildlife Service released a memo on 1 March 2018 in response to the ruling, withdrawing Endangered Species Act findings from various years for trophies of elephants from Zimbabwe, Tanzania, South Africa, and Namibia; lions from Zimbabwe and South Africa; and bontebok in South Africa; and stating that applications would be considered on an individual basis:
However, the Service intends to use the information cited in these findings and contained in its files as appropriate, in addition to the information it receives and has available when it receives each application, to evaluate individual permit applications.
The Fish and Wildlife Service will now review permits on a case-by-case basis. The agency did not announce this change, however, and the memo only began receiving media attention when The Hill and other news outlets reported on it in March 2018.