Trump steps into a lion's den by ending ban on elephant trophy-hunting imports

President Trump has found himself in the middle of a brouhaha, moving to reverse an Interior Department end to an Obama-era ban on the importation of big game elephant trophies.  He's getting blasted on all sides.

The ban on big game trophies from African safari hunts paid for by well heeled Westerners came in the wake of a 2015 news item about Cecil the Lion being killed by an American dentist on tour for a wall trophy, leading to an outcry.  As news of the ban reversal led to complaints, Trump tweeted:

"Put big game trophy decision on hold until such time as I review all conservation facts," Mr. Trump tweeted. "Under study for years. Will update soon with Secretary Zinke. Thank you!"

Obviously, he's been taking incoming flak about this and not solely from the usual cast of leftists.  Yet it's a complex matter whose resolution will depend strongly on a single set of facts and education and recognition of the realities of Africa.  That's a tall order in this instant-gratification sound-bite age.

Michael Savage outlines the problems with the optics of this quite well:

Permitting the importation of elephant trophies? Are you kidding? This is a stereotype of the ugly Republican ... on steroids. Everything the left says about the insensitive, earth-killing, animal destroying, oafish Republican is coming to fruition all in one move. Who advised you on this Mr. President? You still have time to reverse this order and restore common decency. Stop the importation of elephant trophies and stop it NOW. If you do not do this you will forever lose the independent, animal-loving voter.

We can add that it doesn't help that Trump's sons have been photographed themselves with big game trophies.  That brings up the second optical problem in lifting this ban: that only the very rich can afford to go on these big game-hunting safaris and bring home these trophies for their mansion walls.  Normal people can't do these things, even if they wanted to, which generally they don't.

Those who are fans of hunting, however, see things differently.  If they are poor, they go on the deer-culling hunts and put the steer heads up on their walls – or, if they live close to the wilderness, bears.  If they are rich, it's all about elephants, leopards, cape buffalo, rhinos, and lions – the trophies of those who can fly to Africa and shell out $60,000 or so for a lion and maybe $40,000 for an elephant.  It's a populist issue.

But against that sentiment, there's the fate of Africa to consider.

The lifting of the ban supposedly came about because of an Interior Department study showing that two nations, most probably Zimbabwe and Zambia, had raised their elephant populations so that the hunting of a small number of them by trophy hunters could be sustainable.  If that's true, and these aren't nations that have any importance to the U.S. otherwise, these facts should be considered.  The high fees from the trophy hunts, it's argued, help increase the elephant populations, because the money is directed toward conservation and anti-poaching efforts.  Leaving these places without those funds ensures that the animals become solely nuisances and hazards to African villagers, who cannot make a living from them, and opens the gate to poachers.

The New York Times notes it this way:

Overhunting has caused a decrease in the number of lions in some areas, especially Tanzania, according to a 2012 study, and hunting has been restricted there. But the researchers behind that study concluded that hunting was less of a risk than an outright ban.

Without the trophy hunt money, locals would increasingly poison lions, which are considered dangerous to humans and livestock, said Vernon Booth, a Zimbabwe-based ecologist.

Neel V. Patel, writing in Slate, of all places, sums up the issue like this:

Our knee-jerk reaction to hunting (and to Trump) ignores good data that suggest hunting works as a means of conservation.

Patel's whole argument is well laid out and worth reading.  It's pretty much an echo of the old libertarian argument that permitting the farming of animals is what keeps their populations high.  Cows and pigs are farmed, and there's never any shortage of those.  Property rights are an incentive for owners to guard and protect as well as increase numbers and, thus, wealth.

More importantly, there are the feelings of the Africans to consider.  They want a few safari hunters to come to Africa to live out their biggest fantasies of the big game hunt in exchange for appropriate compensation.  The nations of Zimbabwe and Zambia very likely pleaded for those ends to the bans, given that the absence of hunters has starved them of their livelihoods as well as endangered their care for the wild animals for lack of funds.  Zimbabwe, for instance, was probably forced to cull 200 lions because it could not draw trophy hunters.

Animals, it is important to note, are not romanticized in Africa, not even by the well heeled city-dwellers, and certainly not by the rural population, whose attitudes reflect those of Alaskans and northwesterners when bear problems become an issue.

Zimbabwean medical researcher Goodwell Nzou, in a superb and memorable op-ed in the New York Times, brings a reality check to the problems of wildlife for people in Africa:

In my village in Zimbabwe, surrounded by wildlife conservation areas, no lion has ever been beloved, or granted an affectionate nickname. They are objects of terror.

When I was 9 years old, a solitary lion prowled villages near my home. After it killed a few chickens, some goats and finally a cow, we were warned to walk to school in groups and stop playing outside. My sisters no longer went alone to the river to collect water or wash dishes; my mother waited for my father and older brothers, armed with machetes, axes and spears, to escort her into the bush to collect firewood.

A week later, my mother gathered me with nine of my siblings to explain that her uncle had been attacked but escaped with nothing more than an injured leg. The lion sucked the life out of the village: No one socialized by fires at night; no one dared stroll over to a neighbor's homestead.

One of the better authorities on animal realities, National Geographic, has published an interview outlining the wisdom of allowing culling of wildlife populations, which, with the term "intervention," can mean hunting;

The ecosystem is a very complex machine and whether anyone likes it or not, humans have intervened with cities, roads, dams, pumped water, fences, and livestock. The only way to mitigate that intervention is by further, more focused, and carefully considered intervention, for the sake of the entire ecosystem.

It is important to bear in mind that the wildlife here, and in the majority of other wildlife areas in Africa (hunting areas exceed the total area conserved by Africa's national parks by more than 20 percent), does not exist as our, or anyone else's, luxury.

The Bubye Valley Conservancy is a privately owned wildlife area, or to put it another way, it is a business. The fact that it is a well-run business is the reason why it is one of the greatest conservation successes in Africa, converting from cattle to wildlife in 1994 (only 22 years ago) and now hosting Zimbabwe's largest contiguous lion population at one of the highest densities in Africa, as well as the third largest black rhino population in the world (after Kruger and Etosha).

This is only possible because it is a business, and is self-sufficient in generating the funds to maintain fences, roads, pay staff, manage the wildlife, pump water, and support the surrounding communities – all extremely necessary factors involved in keeping wildlife alive in Africa.

So even as quite a few of us abhor the idea of hunting elephants and lions for sport on its own merits, as Savage does, and others resent the class implications of African trophy-hunting as a luxury of the rich, the preponderance of the evidence seems to point to the libertarian argument that farming animals – which includes allowing the culling of the herds by fee-paying trophy-hunters – is the best way to keep them numerous, alive, and healthy.

It's counterintuitive at first glance, yet it seems to be the best solution.  That leaves President Trump on the horns of a dilemma, either having to educate Americans on the wisdom of this policy, which, as someone who never talks down to people, he is unlikely to want to do, or else reversing the policy and leaving the Africans and their incredible wildlife inheritance, to fend for themselves, underfunded, isolated, unable to fight off poachers, and unable to make their voices and interests heard.

It's one of the thornier issues he will have to navigate, given the high level of public interest in this news.  My hope is that he tries to educate.