Under current rules, Walter Palmer might have imported Cecil’s head with little fuss
WASHINGTON D.C.–– In 20-20 hindsight, the November 19, 2017 Twitter message by U.S. President Donald Trump hinting that he might protect African elephants and lions from trophy hunting by executive order looks more like camouflage than a decision.
Twittering that trophy hunters, including his sons Eric and Donald Jr. and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, “will be very hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of elephants or any other animal,” Trump signaled that he was leaning toward intervening to prevent the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service from lifting directives issued in 2014 and 2015 that suspended imports of elephant parts from five nations and lion parts from three nations.
But Trump did not follow up in any manner. Perhaps he knew what was to come.
Safari Club & NRA win in court
Ruling on behalf of Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association, two of Trump’s strongest political allies, the Washington D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on December 22, 2017 overturned the 2014 and 2015 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service directives that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service had proposed lifting.
That meant Trump could not keep in effect the directives protecting elephants and lions from trophy hunters because, according to the D.C. Court of Appeals, those directives should never have had legal force in the first place, due to procedural errors made in the process of issuing them.
But elephant and lion advocates were slow to recognize the full meaning of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals verdict.
Attorney claims victory in defeat
“Importantly, the court affirmed the Fish & Wildlife Service’s finding that trophy hunting does not enhance populations of African elephants when the conservation status of elephants continues to deteriorate due to poaching and corruption, as is the case in Zimbabwe,” said Center for Biological Diversity senior attorney Tanya Sanerib in a written statement responding to the December 22, 2017 ruling.
Exulting that “The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected most of the challenges brought by the Safari Club International and National Rifle Association,” Sanerib said “This ruling is an important victory for elephants and rejects the backward notion that killing imperiled species for sport somehow helps save them.”
Only Guardian and Mongabay journalist Jeremy Hance appears to have recognized within the next two weeks that the apparent “victory” over Safari Club International and the NRA actually exposed elephants––and lions––to more trophy hunting, rather than less.
New book details Cecil’s suffering
Excerpts from the forthcoming book Lion Hearted: The Life and Death of Cecil and the Future of Africa’s Iconic Cats, by Oxford University lion researcher Andrew Loveridge, published on March 3, 2018 by National Geographic, confirmed that trophy hunter Walter Palmer, Zimbabwe-based hunting guide Theo Bronkhorst, and Bronkhorst’s son Zane on July 1, 2015 lured the 12-year-old radio collared lion Cecil out of protected habitat by relocating an elephant carcass.
Palmer that evening shot an arrow into Cecil from a blind ambush.
Based on radio collar data, Cecil “most definitely did not die instantly and almost certainly suffered considerably,” Loveridge wrote, before the hunting party found him less than 400 yards away the following morning. Palmer killed Cecil with a second arrow at about 9:00 a.m. on July 2, 2015.
Unusual procedures following the dispatch, according to Loveridge, suggest that “[Theo] Bronkhorst, well aware that there was no quota for a lion to be hunted” where Cecil was killed, “was removing any evidence of the hunt,” perhaps “intending to report the lion as having been hunted” in another area, “where there were lions on the hunting quota. This administrative sleight of hand is known as ‘quota swapping’ and is unfortunately common in the hunting industry,” Loveridge observed.
“There were other anomalies in the case that carry a heavy whiff of impropriety,” Loveridge added. “The National Parks manager of the area had previously mandated that a ranger accompany trophy hunts for lions to ensure that all necessary regulations were followed. This local regulation was not adhered to.”
Radio collar hung in tree
Further, Loveridge wrote, “Bronkhorst admits that he ‘panicked’ when he first saw the collar, which he then removed and hung in a tree close to where the lion had been killed.”
Had Cecil been legally hunted, there would have been no reason for panic.
As to Palmer, Loveridge recounted, “American media uncovered his participation in a similar incident nine years earlier. On that occasion Palmer shot, again with a hunting bow, a large black bear in Wisconsin, 40 miles from his permit’s stipulated hunting area.”
Caught, Palmer was fined $3,000.
Sought trophy elephant
After killing Cecil, Palmer asked Bronkhorst to find him an elephant he could shoot with record book-sized tusks.
“Bronkhorst, perhaps regretfully, had to tell the avid hunter that he couldn’t find such a large elephant,” Loveridge summarized. “It should also be noted that as of April 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had banned all imports of elephant hunting trophies from Zimbabwe under the Endangered Species Act. This ban was still in place in 2015. If Palmer had succeeded in killing a giant pachyderm, it’s unclear how the collector of exceptional trophies planned to get the ivory home.”
Bontebok targeted too
Now Palmer might have little difficulty. On March 1, 2018, two days before publication of the excerpts from Lion Hearted, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service memorandum quietly confirmed that “in response to the D.C. Circuit Court’s opinion” of December 22, 2017, trophy hunters are again allowed to import lion parts from Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Zambia, along with elephant parts from Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia, and parts from bontebok antelope killed in South Africa.
The estimated 2,300 bontebok antelope alive today are descended from just 17 to 22, according to differing sources, as of 1830, after they had been heavily hunted for meat.
“A subspecies of the Blesbok, the two have interbred a great deal and there is a view among some conservationists that there are no true strains of either left,” according to the web site of Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Permit applications to be reviewed individually
“The Service is continuing to monitor the status and management of these species in their range countries,” the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service memorandum said. “At this time, when the Service processes these permit applications, the Service intends to do so on an individual basis, including making Endangered Species Act enhancement determinations, and Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species non-detriment determinations when required, for each application.”
Reviewing trophy import applications individually, without clearly specified uniform criteria, could leave considerable leeway for interpretations favoring the wealthiest and most influential applicants.
Noted National Public Radio reporter Colin Dwyer, “The memo, which was not publicized by the agency, did not clarify the specific guidelines by which the permits would be judged. It is also not clear what role was played in the decision by the president.”
“Government probably taking the money”
As recent as late January,” Dwyer said, “Trump rejected the possibility he would lift the ban,” in an interview with British broadcaster Piers Morgan, even though by then the D.C. Court of Appeals had already lifted it.
“I didn’t want elephants killed and stuffed and have the tusks brought back into this [country]. And people can talk all they want about preservation and all other things that they’re saying,” Trump told Morgan. “In that case, the money was going to a government that was probably taking the money, okay?”
Said Sanerib of the Center for Biological Diversity, “The Trump administration is trying to keep these crucial trophy import decisions behind closed doors, and that’s totally unacceptable.”
Grizzly bears next?
Observed Eli Rosenberg of the Washington Post, “Under Zinke, who is also a hunter, the Interior Department’s policies,” including those of the Fish & Wildlife Service, “have become noticeably more pro-hunting. The department took a step in June 2017 to potentially allow grizzly bears near Yellowstone National Park to be hunted,” in addition to reopening imports of elephant, lion, and bontebok trophies.
Agreed Humane Society of the U.S. interim president Kitty Block, “The Fish & Wildlife Service, under its current leadership, is kowtowing to the interests of wealthy trophy hunters. Continuing to show support for the hunting and gun lobby, the Fish & Wildlife Service recently established an International Wildlife Conservation Council to promote trophy hunting by Americans abroad. The council is loaded with representatives of the trophy hunting industry, including Safari Club International and NRA officials.
“It is probably no coincidence,” Block blogged, “that Safari Club International recently relocated its headquarters [from Tucson, Arizona] to Washington, D.C.”