November 21, 2017

The gray bits about elephants and hunting

It's more complicated than you'd think

In the past weeks, news of the US Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to allow imports of elephants from Zimbabwe has been front-and-center. I thought a few facts might be useful as folks weigh their response to this decision. Now, even President Trump has described his own administration's action as a 'horror show'.  Is it?

African elephant in Etosha National Park, Namibia. 2017.
Photo by Kelly Powell.
Most gut reaction to the news is shock--perhaps partially because most liberals (I'm one) are primed to react with shock to anything the Trump Administration decides to do--indeed, Don, Jr. decided to pose with his trophy elephant's just-removed tail in a manner that I don't feel is respectful of the species and respectful of the process of hunting in general--and those photos fuel anger about the issue. That didn't help. But, the strong reaction is also partially because most folks don't know what is happening with elephants and elephant conservation and management around the world.  So, let's address the latter. I can't control Don, Jr.'s actions.

Some quick clarifications:

  • Elephants are listed as a species of conservation concern under international agreement 
  • Poaching is a huge problem in elephant conservation.  The African Wildlife Foundation says 8% of the population is poached each year. So, is habitat destruction and encroachment of humans into wild places in Africa. 
  • However, the plight of elephants varies tremendously from country to country. 
  • The most recent US Fish and Wildlife Service decision only applies to elephants hunted in Zimbabwe. 
  • The decision only affects elephants imported from Zimbabwe to the United States (elephants can still be legally hunted by trophy hunters in Zimbabwe from other countries). 
  • Elephants can currently be imported by hunters who hunt in Namibia and South Africa, as well as elephants hunted during certain time in Zambia and Zimbabwe.  
  • The decisions made about elephant import to the US, made by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, come down to the question, "Does prohibition or allowance of import support conservation of the species?"

Be honest--did you know that elephants could still be legally hunted in Africa? Many people are not aware of this, and cannot conceive of it. 

How to react?  One problem with this issue is that conservation groups disagree on the role of hunting as a support for conservation.  The African Wildlife Foundation would like to retain the ban on imports of elephants to the US from Zimbabwe. In contrast, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) points to the example of Namibia where regulated trophy hunting has had positive results to support the recovery of wildlife populations that were previously headed for eradication. Note that WWF uses a similar rubric as the US Fish and Wildlife Service--only supporting trophy hunting when there is clear evidence that it helps conserve the species.

Another problem with knowing how to react is that most citizens of the US cannot imagine life in Africa. I've lived in Namibia for one year, and I've stayed with families that live in mud huts in the bush. They can recount stories of people being killed by elephants and crop damage by elephants--the recovery of elephant populations in Namibia has been astonishing. And, this causes human-wildlife conflicts similar to those issues with wolves in the western US and deer-car collisions in much of the eastern US. Hunting is a management option in those situations. When problem elephants in Namibia are identified by authorities in the regulatory agency, a permit is issued to a waiting list of clients of professional hunters. The money paid by the client for the hunting opportunity may be US$25-50,000. And, that money is designated to be used to support conservation in the community, just as hunting supports habitat conservation in the US.

Now--a good question is whether that money will reach its intended target (see this National Geographic article on the topic), and this is one reason for the recent decision by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  The Service decided that regulations and political structure in Zimbabwe had improved so that a client could trust that these funds reach their destination. You can read the decision here. All politics aside, I truly believe that the decision has nothing to do with Trump's family's hunting interests--but the most recent political upheaval in Zimbabwe (I predict) will most likely mean a reversal of this specific decision. Zimbabwe's political climate is now different than when the US Fish and Wildlife service made their decision, and it's hard to justify the decision based on a more stable regulatory system until Zimbabwe decides who will be their leader.

This is a tough issue, and I'm not going to argue a specific side here. Hopefully you can think about your decision on the issue with a bit more information about elephant conservation and the role of hunting of elephants in Africa. I hunt deer to fill a freezer, but I can't imagine hunting an elephant--it's a personal decision. I'd much rather pay for a photo safari, and I'm not rich enough to even think about elephant hunting.

But, stay tuned as human encroachment into elephant habitat will only increase in future years, and elephant conservation will continue to be a tricky issue.  For the moment, I hope the information provided here shows how 'gray' the issue can be for these large, gray mammals, even for conservation organizations.

Time-lapse video of elephants at a waterhole in Etosha National Park. Video by Larkin Powell.


  1. Side show from the real issues of 1.2 billion people on the African continent. Elephants like other large and not very neighborly wildlife unfortunately going to be restricted to a few national parks.

  2. This is a great piece. I do support trophy hunting of some species, like the WWF, when the hunting funds a larger, effective conservation effort. I am particularly worried about hunting elephants though. I've read that they have a tight knit social groups, much like our nuclear families. If this is true, then they may not be an ideal species for a trophy hunt. Do other large conservation organizations, like WWF, support this new rule?

    1. Social structure is a concern in the management of harvest of many species. But harvest can be carefully managed to avoid that concern. Here is a paper that concisely describes that issue.