The Trump administration has lifted a ban on importing sport-hunted trophies of elephants from certain African countries, just over three months after President Trump appeared to pause a first attempt to do so amid public uproar. In a memo dated March 1, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that in place of the Obama-era blanket ban, the agency will consider importation permits "on a case-by-case basis."
The memo, which was not publicized by the agency, did not clarify the specific guidelines by which the permits would be judged. It is also not clear what role was played in the decision by the president, who has publicly expressed his opposition several times to rolling back the ban.
In November 2017, just one day after the Fish and Wildlife Service announced it had lifted the ban, Trump said he had put that move "on hold until such time as I review all conservation facts." Two days later, he tweeted that he "will be very hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of Elephants or any other animal."
As recent as late January, Trump rejected the possibility he would lift the ban.
"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," he 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."
Since that decision in November, however, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Obama administration had acted improperly in implementing its ban. That late December ruling, which addressed a lawsuit brought by Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association, found that the administration did not sufficiently observe the rules around creating a new regulation, such as inviting public comment.
The Fish and Wildlife Service directly cited the court ruling in its letter, saying that as a result it was withdrawing several previous Endangered Species Act findings dating back to 1995. They "are no longer effective for making individual permit determinations for imports of those sport-hunted ESA-listed species," the memo said — including not only elephants from a number of African countries but also lions and bonteboks from South Africa.
The agency added that it would still use some of the information included in those findings, whenever relevant to the evaluation of an individual permit application.
It did not issue a release to announce the decision, which was instead surfaced Monday by The Hill and other media outlets.
As The Associated Press reports, Zinke has long held a position apparently at odds with the one expressed in January by Trump, arguing that hunting promotes wildlife conservation. In fact, he had the arcade game Big Buck Hunter installed in the employee cafeteria to help support his point.
"Get excited for #hunting season!" Zinke tweeted last September.
Conservationist activists have expressed skepticism that fees paid by big game hunters actually get to the wildlife agencies they're intended to support.
"A lot of the money has been siphoned away by corruption," Rachel Bale, a wildlife reporter for National Geographic, explained on NPR's Morning Edition back in November, "so there are serious concerns with hunting management in Zimbabwe."
And the numbers of these animals continue to decline. A census of African elephants, for instance, said their population had plummeted roughly 30 percent from 2007 to 2014 alone.
Some activists, such as Jimmiel Mandima of the African Wildlife Foundation, have told media outlets they do not view the new case-by-case system as a complete reversal of Fish and Wildlife Service policy. But they object to the perceived lack of clarity offered by the administration.
"The Trump administration is trying to keep these crucial trophy import decisions behind closed doors, and that's totally unacceptable," Tanya Sanerib of the Center for Biological Diversity told the AP. "Elephants aren't meant to be trophies; they're meant to roam free."
"The president has been very clear in the direction that his administration will go," a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson told NBC News — but would not comment further on next steps, as the broadcaster reports, "citing ongoing litigation."