Lions next in line of fire as Trump rolls back curbs on African hunting trophies

Lions next in line of fire as US rolls back curbs on African hunting trophies.

Hunting interests have scored a major victory with the Trump administration’s decision to allow Americans to bring home body parts of elephants shot for sport in Africa. Another totemic species now looks set to follow suit – lions.

As the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) was announcing it was lifting a ban on the import of elephant “trophies” from Zimbabwe and Zambia, it also quietly published new guidelines that showed lions shot in the two African countries will also be eligible to adorn American homes.

“This all suggests that rather than being the protectors of wildlife, the federal government is now a promoter of trophy hunting,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.

“They are rolling out the red carpet to the next Walter Palmer, and that same sort of situation will happen all over again,” Pacelle added, referencing the Minnesota dentist who sparked an international furore after he shot and killed Cecil, a famous black-maned lion that was lured from a protected reserve in Zimbabwe.

In 2014, American hunters were barred from bringing home parts of elephants shot in Zimbabwe because of concerns over the conservation of the animals in the country. Last year, the FWS, under the Obama administration, also listed the lion as a threatened species and placed tighter restrictions on bringing back heads, paws and other body parts.

The Trump administration has begun to peel away this legacy in unusual fashion by announcing the lifting to the elephant ban at the African Wildlife Consultative Forum, a pro-hunting event held in Tanzania, rather than on its website or in the federal register.

The event is co-hosted by Safari Club International, an Arizona-based group that lobbies against hunting restrictions and auctions off trips to members to head to Africa to hunt the “big five” – lions, rhinos, elephants, Cape buffalo and leopards. SCI joined with the National Rifle Association (NRA) to legally challenge the ban on elephant trophies.

Chris Cox, the executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, said the Trump administration had backed “sound scientific wildlife management and regulated hunting” through its decision. Conservation groups fear the administration is now held in the sway of SCI and the NRA to the detriment of species such as lions and elephants – both of which have suffered sharp declines in recent years.

“This is political fealty to the NRA and SCI,” said Pacelle. “Here we are telling black Africans they can’t kill elephants for tusks but it’s OK for rich white people to show up and shoot them. It’s the height of hypocrisy.”

Pacelle said it was a “farce” that Zimbabwe was now considered a responsible steward for elephants in the midst of an apparent coup by the military against Robert Mugabe, the 93-year-old president who celebrated a birthday in 2015 by feasting upon a baby elephant.

Zimbabwe’s elephant population has dropped in recent years with a spate of poaching, including cyanide poisonings, killing thousands of the animals. However, the FWS said the lifting of the trophy import ban was rooted in science and that the situation has “changed and improved” since 2014.

The agency said Zimbabwe had a new management plan that includes a hunting quota of 500 elephants, with money from wealthy western hunters distributed to rural communities.

There has been a fierce battle between some conservationists and hunting groups over whether funds from shooting trips actually improve the fortunes of endangered species or local communities, but it is clear that the trajectory of almost all megafauna in Africa is one of rapid decline.

The pro-hunting outlook of the Trump administration has a champion in Ryan Zinke, the secretary of the interior. Zinke, whose agency also oversees the FWS, has pushed for greater hunting access to public land, reversed a ban on lead ammunition that is linked to the poisonings of bald eagles and is attempting to open a vast wildlife refuge in Alaska to oil drilling.

This agenda dovetails with Republicans in Congress who have taken aim at endangered species protections, putting forward bills that would allow the trapping of wolves in the US and remove non-native species – such as lions and elephants – from protected status.

The president’s sons are also both keen hunters, with pictures emerging in 2012 of Eric and Donald Trump Jr with a dead elephant, buffalo and other animals while on safari. Donald Jr posed holding a severed elephant’s tail while the two brothers beamed at the camera while clutching a dead leopard.

Donald Trump Jr, the president’s eldest son, has said he is known as the “Fifth Avenue redneck” by friends due to his love of hunting and estimates he has killed “15 or 16 species” in Africa.

Last year, Donald Jr said the FWS “should be encouraging American hunters legally and ethically hunting abroad, not hindering them”.

“We have to make sure we’re heard,” he said. “Lately, we’ve been a forgotten group. I want to change that now and forever.

“And we are going to do whatever we can to make sure that any kind of Trump presidency is going to be the best since Theodore Roosevelt for outdoorsmen, for hunters, for our public lands, and for this country as it relates to anything in the great outdoors.”