Pulling the Curtain Back on the Disgraceful Subculture of Trophy Hunting of the World’s Rarest Animals

The U.S. can play a major role by halting imports of sport-hunted trophies of threatened and endangered species

According to a report issued by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service this spring, the United States granted import permits between 2013 and 2017 for 32,100 black bears, 10,122 sandhill cranes, 2,645 African lions, 2,552 Chacma baboons, and 2,148 mountain zebras, which, like several other species on that list, are considered vulnerable or rare by international conservation authorities. Originally killed in Canada and a number of southern African nations, these animals and their parts come into the U.S. on terms broadly set by Congress, our federal wildlife agencies, and a United Nations treaty organization that tracks species at risk.

The United States has, by far, the biggest pool of trophy hunters in the world, importing ten times more animals than China, which is second on the list. Many wealthy American trophy hunters are members of the Tucson-based Safari Club International, which maintains record books for the biggest and rarest animals and also offers a range of “grand slams” and “hunting achievement awards, such as “Cats of the World” and “Bears of the World.”

The SCI awards programs fuels a global guiding and outfitting industry and drives binge hunting for many of the rarest animals in the world. My friend Matthew Scully, a former presidential speechwriter, called it a sort of “frequent slayer” program where the trophy hunters pick up points for the diversity of species they kill as they hopscotch across the world.

South Africa, Namibia, and Canada are the three top exporters of trophies, setting up a friendly regulatory environment for Americans who kill the animals and ship the remains back home.  South Africa is the key destination for lion hunters, and just about all of that killing occurs on  “canned hunting” operations – fenced enclosures where the animals don’t even have a chance to escape and the kills are all but “guaranteed.” Exports of these captive lion trophies stopped in 2016 after U.S. authorities listed lions as threatened and endangered across their range and determined that imports of lions from canned hunting facilities are not consistent with the “enhancement” standards of the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

About the same time it took action on lions, the Obama Administration also halted imports of elephant trophies from a number of the half dozen of so countries that allowed the practice (984 elephant trophies came in to the U.S. between 2013-2017), including Zimbabwe and Tanzania because of their failures to maintain strong controls of their hunting programs and financial management of them. The current Administration’s Interior Department leaders seemed poised to lift that set of restrictions until the President himself tweeted in the fall of 2017 that elephant hunting was a “horror show.”

SCI and a second trophy hunting advocacy group, Conservation Force, have been lobbying for the lifting of import restrictions on lion and elephant trophies.  Now they have an incredible opening with Botswana announcing two weeks ago that it will lift its domestic ban on trophy hunting of its wildlife.  Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi has departed from the policies of his predecessor, Ian Khama, who banned all hunting in the Texas-sized southern African nation. Khama had selected his deputy for the top post recently said that pick was “a mistake” and has left the political party that he and Masisi had led.  Khama is backing Masisi’s main opponent in the run-up to this fall’s national elections there.

Thanks in part to Khama’s pro-wildlife vision, ecotourism became Botswana’s second biggest industry. Despite the hundreds of millions that photographic safaris generate for the economy, Masisi has failed to recognize that the economics of trophy hunting no longer add up. An elephant can be shot and killed only once; an elephant can be shot with a camera a thousand times. A single dead elephant’s tusks may be valued at $21,000, while the estimated tourism value of a single living elephant is $1,600,000 over its lifetime to travel companies, airlines, and local economies. That makes a living elephant, in financial terms, as valuable as seventy-six dead elephants.  Trophy hunting, according to the CRS authors, had been banned in Botswana by Khama since 2015 and also in Angola, Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, and South Sudan.

It will be telling to see if the United States allows trophies from threatened and endangered species to come in from Botswana.  The United States’ crackdown on lion and elephant import permits has been welcome news, but it’s still allowing imports of leopards and a number of other rare species. According to the CRS report, trophy hunters imported 1,525 leopards in the 2013-2017 period.

Federal laws do not allow the trophy hunting of threatened and endangered animals inhabiting the United States, such as Florida panthers, wolves, and grizzly bears in the parts of the U.S. where they retain protections. The question is, why do we allow foreign-listed species to be hunted and imported? If it’s wrong to do in the United States, it is wrong in foreign nations, and the U.S. can use its ability to restrict imports to enforce a sound conservation policy.

And it’s politically popular to oppose this kind of high-end yet destructive hunting, where elites spend $13,000 on average to kill a Cape buffalo and $35,000 to kill an African lion. These international excursions have little in common with lunch-bucket hunters in the U.S. who shoot a deer and fill the freezer with meat. In fact, none of the meat from the safari hunters comes back from Africa, making it trophy hunting in its purest form.

And no political leader in Africa or the U.S. could have missed the outpouring of public furor after a photo ricocheted across the web of a grinning American trophy hunter sitting astride a bloodied Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe in 2015. The perpetrator, a Minnesota dentist, lured the male cat from Hwange National Park and wounded him with an arrow before killing him with a second shot some 12 hours later. Cecil’s fate had the effect of throwing back the curtain on the cruel subculture of competitive trophy hunting, and the public recoiled in disgust.

United, Delta, and American Airlines declared they’d no longer transport the trophies of the Africa Big Five in their cargo holds. Air Canada, Air France, British Airways, Emirates Airlines, and dozens of others did the same, deciding they’d no longer serve as get-away vehicles for the on-going heist of Africa’s greatest living resources.

Democrats in the House, led by Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., have introduced the CECIL Act, H.R. 2245, to forbid imports of trophies of threatened and endangered species. The bill also limits imports if a species has been proposed for listing — to head off a mad dash by trophy hunters to trek to Africa and shoot animals before formal federal protections are imposed.

The Congress, during its annual appropriations cycle, can take aim at the killing of the rarest animals in the world by American trophy hunters and close the door on this unethical, head-hunting escapade.