Editor's Note: Since the original issue of this month's World Conservation Force Bulletin was drafted, events have significantly changed the developments reported about elephant import permits. As this issue was going to print, we pulled one of our original stories to provide you with this last-minute report.
On November 17, 2017 the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) Chief of Permits told an audience of African range nation permanent secretaries, directors, chief ecologists, wardens, anti-poaching authorities and others that a long awaited positive enhancement finding had finally been made for the import of elephant hunting trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia. The welcome news was greeted with applause and appreciation from the largely black audience.
The occasion was the 16th African Wildlife Consultative Forum in Arusha, Tanzania. This was a great relief to the scientific authorities present from Zimbabwe and Zambia and to the team from Conservation Force that has worked to satisfy the enhancement requirements every day for Zimbabwe since those imports were suspended and nearly every day since Zambia had reopened its tourist safari hunting and elephant hunting after a round of population studies.
Both countries had been waiting for the news since CITES CoP 17 in September 2016. All questionnaires had been responded to and FWS had promised a determination shortly after returning to Virginia from the CoP. Zambia was good-to-go, and Zimbabwe was asked to submit a prioritization schedule for its ambitious new national elephant action/management plan. Within weeks Zimbabwe responded with the prioritization schedule and all was set. Everyone waited for the enhancement determinations that were promised, but nothing came from FWS. Trump was elected and took office. The hunting conventions came and went. Still nothing came from FWS.
When repeatedly asked, the Director of International Affairs excused the delay to the change of administrations that, he said, always leads to delay. Later, on the day Conservation Force argued the oral administrative appeal of the elephant import permits for 2014 and 2015, we learned the truth. FWS International Affairs had been overwhelmed with import permit applications for rosewood that had been listed at CoP 17. They were blind-sided with the Rosewood permit demand and had shelved the pending import permit applications for a number of species and countries. Believe me, we cried hard and loud about another instance of malfeasance. The FWS International Affairs Office is renowned for neglecting trophy import permit applications and treating them as low priority. Justified because the office lacked the capacity to do all its work or not, the office voluntarily imposes stricter domestic requirements upon other nations without timely making the necessary determinations. The nations with the best programs are made to unnecessarily jump through costly hoops with endless delays and those that need help the most can never meet the burdens or understand the poor FWS communications.
Needless to say, the process was all but completed during the prior administration, but the delayed decisions came to fruition during Trump's administration. Trump was blind-sided by several days of false-fact reporting by the media and animal rights wackos who took full advantage of FWS officials' absence. FWS leaders were still in Africa at that time doing their duty with the various African authorities on a great array of unrelated issues as they wisely do each year on the same occasion. It is largely a time for fact finding by FWS.
The media attack was aimed mercilessly on the range nations and the President. Let me explain a few of the correct facts. Neither country had their elephant hunting banned. Zambia closed its own hunting, including elephant. There was a positive enhancement finding when they closed their own hunting so no suspension, ban or anything like that ever occurred. The FWS simply updated its enhancement finding for Zambia and told them the good news face to face at the first occasion.
Zimbabwe had its elephant imports "suspended," not banned. It was suspended with a simultaneous request for updated information and express assurance that imports would be reauthorized when the information requested was provided. Zimbabwe quickly responded to one of the most demanding barrage of requests the FWS had ever before made. Multiple requests and responses went back and forth and were all but done before Trump was elected or took office.
The FWS added a request that had not been intimated to before and that related to the timing or prioritization of Zimbabwe's new action plan. Zimbabwe has the second largest elephant population in Africa and has succeeded in avoiding the poaching and trafficking in ivory of other countries that skyrocketed from 2010 to 2012 and has since come more under control. Nevertheless, with the assistance of Conservation Force and Shikar Safari Club International Foundation, ZimParks, a parastatal that operates apart from the Zimbabwe Government, had adopted a new National Elephant Action/Management Plan. That plan or strategy is the most up-to-date plan in Africa and is remarkable in itself. It embodies four regional plans, committees, coordinators and more.
The planning began with a participatory CAMPFIRE workshop with participants from district councils and communities across the country representing 777,000 families that earn most of their income from tourist-hunting and most of that from licensed, regulated tourist elephant hunting that has been suspended (68 percent). It was followed by a large national planning meeting of all stakeholders, experts and authorities from adjacent countries. That was followed by regional workshops, meetings and four regional plans that were made part of the National plan in still another meeting. All of this was finished and signed in January 2016, a year before Trump took office. Zimbabwe began to lose confidence that the process was in good faith, but it continued forward as its essential income from hunting used to control poaching and to meet the FWS demands continued to be diminished.
The real facts are not disputable, but who in the media bothers with the facts. They are still repeating the false claim in elephant releases that Cecil the lion was lured out of the park even though that lion had been out of the park for months when taken. They represent that lion as being in his prime and famous before the media made him famous, all lies. They neglect the fact that the lion in that area have doubled and tripled due in large measure to tourist safari hunting, and the national lion population is among the few that are increasing. They represent Zimbabwe as the worst wildlife manager in Africa when it has always been one of the best as their ranking as the steward of the second largest elephant population attests. Zimbabwe was the first to have elephant import approved in 1990 and has more elephant today than it did then. At the time of the FWS's last enhancement determination in 1997 the Zimbabwe elephant population had grown to 66,000. It is more than 82,000 today. No other elephant population has such a growth rate. One of the two smaller sub-populations that have declined in the country is Sebungwe where the human population has increased from 45,000 (1950) to 700,00 today, which fully explains that decline. Moreover, the decline occurred with the human population increase before the recent poaching crisis elsewhere. Believe me, the enhancement finding was science-based and long overdue.
The enhancement finding was not a political decision. We hope a political decision does not override the life-line for Zimbabwe elephant.