Trump saves the elephants

The real elephants, I mean. The political elephants are probably headed for slaughter next fall.

Hats off, though. This is a good call, welcomed by animal-lovers of all political stripes. I’m curious to know what made him change his mind.

The Fish and Wildlife Service lets big-game hunters import trophies from animals they’ve killed in Africa if there’s evidence that the hunt is good for conservation. You know how that works, or how it’s supposed to work: American hunters pay big bucks for the right to shoot an elephant or a lion and, ideally, the local government plows some of that revenue into growing the herd. The hunters get their trophy, the species thrives under human protection, Africans get some cash they can use for development. Everyone wins, except the, er, dead elephant whose head is mounted on some guy’s wall. Three years ago, though, Obama’s administration concluded that it wasn’t getting reliable evidence of conservation from Zimbabwe (or from Zambia) so it banned trophy imports from the country outright. Two days ago, Trump’s Fish and Wildlife Service lifted the ban.

Obvious question: Why the hell would you greenlight big-game hunting in Zimbabwe at a moment when the country’s even less stable than usual? According to WaPo, Zimbabwe’s government finally provided sufficient documentation of conservation efforts to get approval from the U.S. for hunting. The problem is, it’s not clear if Zimbabwe even has a government right now and less clear whether they’ll have a government tomorrow. On a good day the regime is deeply corrupt. On a bad day — and a very bad day might be coming soon — God only knows what it might be willing to do for money. Maybe it’ll have open season on the local wildlife for rich safarists, with no limits to how many one can shoot. Or maybe poachers will run wild amid the civil turmoil, killing elephants and lions indiscriminately to sell their hides and tusks abroad.

Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, couldn’t believe that Team Trump picked this moment of all moments to relax regulations on hunting in Zimbabwe.

“Today Zimbabwe is in economic and political crisis. American citizens in the country are advised to go outdoors only when necessary. In this moment of turmoil, I have zero confidence that the regime – which for years has promoted corruption at the highest levels – is properly managing and regulating conservation programs. Furthermore, I am not convinced that elephant populations in the area warrant overconcentration measures.

“The administration should withdraw this decision until Zimbabwe stabilizes. Elephants and other big game in Africa are blood currency for terrorist organizations, and they are being killed at an alarming rate. Stopping poaching isn’t just about saving the world’s most majestic animals for the future – it’s about our national security.”

Remember Cecil the lion? He was killed in Zimbabwe, lured out of a national park by hunters and then chased for two days before he was finished off by an American on safari. Two of the men who accompanied the American on the trip were later arrested on poaching charges. There’ll be more Cecils as Mugabe’s grip weakens and even less scrupulous characters step in to help hunters get what they came for. Lifting the ban would have opened up the highly lucrative American market to those characters. Now POTUS has stopped it, at least temporarily.

But why? The Zimbabwe ban has all the hallmarks of a policy Trump would naturally want to overturn. It has Obama’s fingerprints on it; it discourages hunting, a tradition practiced by many rural Trump voters; and it inconveniences the Trump family, who have been known to enjoy shooting an elephant or a big cat now and then. Trump hates admitting that he’s wrong, too, especially under political pressure, yet here he is halting a decision by his Interior Department a day after it was made amid a massive outcry. It’s uncharacteristic. Presumably the fact that prominent Trump fans were among the people complaining about the ban being lifted influenced him:

As of yesterday afternoon, the administration was full speed ahead on lifting the ban, with Sarah Huckabee Sanders defending the decision at the afternoon press briefing. A few hours later POTUS was tweeting that he’d put the brakes on. What happened? What was said to him within the past 24 hours that wasn’t said to him during the many months preceding the Fish and Wildlife Service’s deliberations on the Obama policy?

As for the big question of whether trophy hunting really does improve conservation, the evidence is inconclusive according to this WaPo analysis. Africa lost a mind-boggling 90 percent of its elephant population between 1913 and 1979. It’s lost another two-thirds of that number since then. The population did increase between 1995 and 2006 thanks to conservation efforts — but it’s been falling since then despite the attempt to use trophy-hunting proceeds to grow local species. In fact, trophy hunting apparently accounts for just one percent of African countries’ tourism revenue and what little it does produce is mostly leached away by the local kleptocracy. It could be that trophy hunting is slowing the decimation of the population, but it’s not stopping it. The president of the Humane Society claims that tourism revenue from wildlife watchers in Africa far exceeds the revenue from hunting, although if that were true you would think basic economics would encourage governments to grow wildlife populations more aggressively so that supply can meet tourist demand. Either way, Trump’s reversal removes an incentive that would make the problem worse. Good for him.