A trophy for Trump, or trump for the Trophy?

In a recent announcement to the world, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) lifted and backflipped a ban on the importation of elephant trophies. What are the implications on conservation and from a socio-economic perspective to the countries involved on a ban on the importation of elephant trophies?

Elephant pic one blog
African Elephant (Loxodonta Africana) mature bull. Mana Pools, Zimbabwe ©Ross Sayer, (2016).

What is trophy hunting? Trophy hunting is a legal type of hunting where a portion of the animal is kept as a souvenir to memorialize the experience. It is not illegal and should not be mistaken for poaching.

The African Elephant is listed as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act and is regulated under a special rule. Being one of the species listed as vulnerable by the IUCN elephants are major contentious species in Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) discussions on trade restrictions. World populations have been declining globally with trade restriction proposals on its trophies meeting contention from countries like Zimbabwe. The initial decision to suspend importation of elephant trophies taken in Zimbabwe was due to the USFWS having insufficient information on the status of elephants in Zimbabwe. This trade ban imposed on Zimbabwean elephant’s trophies went into effect April 4, 2014.

Known for its sustainable management of elephants, the Zimbabwe elephant population currently stands at 84 000, greater than the ecological carrying capacity for the country can hold. This means that there are more elephants in Zimbabwe than what the environment can sustain, given the food, habitat, water, and other necessities available in the country. The 2014 ban over the years resulted in an increase in human and elephant conflicts in the country and its removal will therefore be welcome towards depopulating the elephant populations, improving community livelihoods and reducing environmental damage to protected areas. Proceeds from trophies have benefitted communities in Zimbabwe through the CAMPFIRE program which has seen direct development and investment in communities through sales of trophies.

Tusks inventory Zimbabwe
A Zimbabwe Parks official inspects the country’s ivory stockpile ©Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi, (2016).

Historically the United States is the largest trophy importer from Zimbabwe. The initial 2014 ban however did not prohibit U.S. hunters from traveling to Zimbabwe and participating in elephant hunts, so hunters kept coming to the elephant rich country resulting in stockpiling of ivory. Currently stockpiles of ivory in Zimbabwe weigh about 70 tonnes and are  worth an estimated $35 million dollars which could be put to good use in the Southern African country if institutions guarding against issues like corruption are adequately put in place.

However, this move could be an undoing of the great work and effort that has been put towards conservation of the African elephant. This leads to questions being raised on the commitment of US towards protection of the species and on the role, that lifting the 2014 ban will lead to in terms of the illegal wildlife trade systems governing the elephant. As global efforts try to put in place mechanisms to manage the trade worth billions of dollars annually.


African elephant conservation issues have received significant attention within CITES According to CITIES regulations, the African elephant is on CITES’ Appendix I, except for those populations in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, which are on Appendix II.  The normal CITES rules for Appendix I-listed species is that commercial, international trade in specimens taken from the wild is prohibited. For Appendix II listed species, the rules allow commercial, international trade, subject to first obtaining the necessary permits. Zimbabwe has strongly resisted embargos on trophy hunting involving elephants.

Zimbabwe has had an active elephant hunting program for more than 20 years and imports of elephant trophies into the United States have occurred since 1997 when its elephant population, was reduced through a process known as down listing to Appendix II of CITES. The US published a notice that acknowledged that, as these elephants were classified in Appendix II, no permit to import into the U.S. would be required for trophies.


The recent 2017 reversal of the ban, legitimizes claims by Zimbabwe that it has proven and successful conservation records to continue harvesting the elephants. The USA through this action recognizes that Zimbabwe has established laws and regulations, which provides a strong basis for elephants sustainably utilization and management and has reviewed the status of the population and concluded that the total management program for elephants ensures the promotion of their conservation.

Trophy for Trump
A trophy for Trump ©Akim Reinhardt, (2014)

Elephant hunting is one of the biggest revenue contributor to the country, hence the re-establishments of traditional markets in the USA which had been lost will be of notable value. The Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Department receives no funding from the central Zimbabwean Government and relies primarily on hunting revenues, hence the importance of opening trade markets for trophy sales is a major boost for conservation in the country. In Zimbabwe, annual revenue from hunting trophies could be as much as $130m, mainly from the US market and is a significant source of revenue.

The lifting of the 2014 ban, recognizes that hunting is beneficial to wildlife and that Zimbabwe can sustainably manage its elephant populations. Zimbabwe is currently vigorously marketing trophies around the world and within the US market.


The African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) however states that the lifting of the ban will promote the hunting industry, not conservation. AWF is concerned for the protection of the endangered species as poaching has led to a catastrophic drop in elephant populations around the world over the last 15 years. (Burn et al, 2011). A petition to ban trophy hunting , shows that some people find trophy hunting reprehensible with some suggesting that countries like Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia could make much more money from tourism instead.

Trump for the trophy
Protesters at the Fifth Annual International March for Elephants ©Jeff Malet, Newsroom, (2017).

The USFWS decision to lift the ban was announced at an event co-hosted by Safari Club International (SCI), a hunting rights group. The Safari Club and the National Rifle Association, both pro hunting organisations have been against the initial 2014 ban from the start and even took the USFW services to the courts over the ban.  Opponents of the lifting of the ban like the US Humane Society highlight that Secretary Zinke just like Donald Trump’s sons are well-known hunters, therefore this position moves in favour of the US hunting sector and shows a biased relationship between the hunters movement and the Trump administration. Trump’s son Donald Jr made headlines when photos surfaced of him posing triumphantly with dead animals he’d killed on safari in Zimbabwe alongside younger brother, Eric Trump.

African Elephant
African Elephant (Loxodonta Africana) mature bull. Mana Pools, Zimbabwe ©Ross Sayer, (2016).

US government officials at the creation of the International Wildlife Conservation Council  and the USFWS spokesman however have stated that this move would boost economies, enhance wildlife conservation by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation and is part of a sound management programme that can benefit the conservation through providing incentives to local communities. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has in so saying stamped that the hunting and management programmes for elephants in Zimbabwe will enhance the survival of the species in the wild.

What then are the implications for development vis-a-vis the trophy hunting conundrum? Shall we give Donald Trump the trophy for promoting social and economic development in under privileged countries sustainably managing their elephant populations, through lifting a ban on the trophy importation, or shall we march and trump against the trade in ivory?


  1. Burn, R.W., Underwood, F.M. & Blanc, J., 2011. Global trends and factors associated with the illegal killing of elephants: a hierarchical Bayesian analysis of carcass encounter data. PLoS ONE, 6(9), p. e24165.
  2. Elephants in the Dust, CITES Report at https://www.cites.org/sites/default/files/common/resources/pub/Elephants_in_the_dust.pdf
  3. Jansen, D.J. 1990. Sustainable wildlife utilization in the Zambezi Valley of Zimbabwe: economic, ecological and political trade-offs (paper presented at Ecological Economics Sustainability: An International Interdisciplinary Conference). Washington, D.C., World Bank.
  4. http://zimparks.org/
  5. Zimbabwe’s 5th Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity at https://www.cbd.int/doc/world/zw/zw-nr-05-en.pdf
  6. Zimbabwe National Elephant Management Program (2020 -2050) at https://conservationaction.co.za/resources/reports/zimbabwe-national-elephant-management-plan-2015-2020/
  7. https://www.cites.org/eng/app/appendices.php

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