Update 11/18: After saying this week that it wanted to reverse a ban on the import of the remains of elephants legally killed in Zimbabwe and Zambia, the Trump administration has announced that it wants more time to collect information. The ban remains in place for now. The story below explains why they are considering lifting the ban.
An official in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) confirmed with ABC News that the reversal follows a provision in the Endangered Species Act, which allows the U.S. government to issue permits for the importation of remains — also known as trophies — provided there's evidence that hunting benefits the conservation of the species. The official said that both Zimbabwe and Zambia have supplied information that supports reversing the ban.
The change in rules, which were established by the Obama administration, has not been formally announced by the Trump administration. However, it already appears on the USFWS's webpage regarding hunting trophies, though it only mentions Zimbabwe. It was also touted by the hunting advocacy group Safari Club International (SCI) in mid-November, when a USFWS official apparently announced the change at a conference in Tanzania.
Per ABC News, the change allows hunters to apply for permits to bring trophies of elephants that were legally hunted in Zimbabwe on or after Jan. 21, 2016, and on or before Dec. 31, 2018. Trophies from elephants hunted in Zambia between 2016 and 2018 that meet all other applicable permitting requirements can now be imported back to the U.S.
A notice about the rule change, including information on what justifies the reversal, will be posted to the Federal Register on Nov. 17. This post will contain the steps Zimbabwe has taken since 2014 to combat poaching, data regarding the financial benefits to American hunters, and how officials developed hunting quotas.
A boon for hunters
The SCI had opposed the Obama administration ban on elephant trophy importing. That group and the National Rifle Association jointly filed multiple lawsuits in 2014 seeking to have the rule suspended.
"These positive findings for Zimbabwe and Zambia demonstrate that the Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes that hunting is beneficial to wildlife and that these range countries know how to manage their elephant populations," SCI President Paul Babaz said in a statement. "We appreciate the efforts of the Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior to remove barriers to sustainable use conservation for African wildlife."
Money raised through hunting permits in these countries is used to support conservation efforts.
The news of the rule change comes only a week after Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced the formation of the International Wildlife Conservation Council. The council's role will be to advise Zinke on a variety of issues and to raise the awareness of the American people "regarding conservation, wildlife law enforcement and economic benefits that result from U.S. citizens traveling abroad to hunt."
The release regarding the council's formation focuses heavily on international hunting, including ensuring that the USFWS has up-to-date information regarding the status of endangered animals to reduce regulations around legal hunting and expediting the process of import permits.
According to the Chicago Tribune, a representative of SCI, along with several other hunting advocates, were on hand during Zinke's first day at the Department of the Interior when Zinke signed a secretarial order expanding fishing and hunting on federal lands and another that reversed a 2012 Obama administration rule that would have phased out lead ammunition and tackle in national wildlife refuges by 2022.
The Tribune also reports that another potential rule reversal is on the horizon. The USFWS has created an online guide for importing lion trophies as well. The agency established specific requirements regarding the importation of lion trophies in 2016 following the African lion's population being listed as threatened or endangered, depending on its habitat.
Elephants in greater danger
Conservationists reacted with dismay to the news.
Wayne Pacelle, the CEO and president of The Humane Society, called the rule reversal a "green light" for American hunters to kill elephants and highlighted Zimbabwe's poor track record of managing its elephant population.
Pacelle joined others, like Michael Chase, the founder and director of Botswana-based Elephants Without Borders, in highlighting Zimbabwe's current political situation in which the country's president, Robert Mugabe, is under house arrest following a military coup.
"[As] the current political, social and economic climate in Zimbabwe is fragile without any accountable government, it is worrisome that the [U.S.] would allow imports from a country whose political future is uncertain," Chase told Fortune.
"This recent decision rewards countries that have a dubious conservation track record, and which will further threaten elephant populations in their last stronghold in southern Africa. Elephant numbers in many parks in Zambia are so depressed that poachers are turning to killing elephants in neighboring countries such as Angola, Botswana and Zimbabwe," he added.
Even Laura Ingraham, a vocal Trump supporter on both her Fox News TV show and her daily radio show, was surprised by the news.
According to the Great Elephant Census' 2016 report, the savanna elephant population has declined 30 percent between 2007 and 2014, with the overall population at just over 350,000 individuals.
In Zimbabwe, the elephant population declined overall by 6 percent, but in the Sebungwe region of the country, the population declined by 74 percent. As for Zambia, elephants saw significant declines along the Zambezi River. The total elephant populations after the census were almost 21,758 for Zambia and 82,304 for Zimbabwe.
This story was originally published earlier this month and has been updated with more recent information.