WASHINGTON — The Trump administration announced late Wednesday that the remains of elephants legally hunted in Zimbabwe and Zambia can now be imported to the United States as trophies, reversing a ban under former president Barack Obama.
African elephants are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that large sums paid for permits to hunt the animals could actually help them ‘‘by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation,’’ according to an agency statement.
Under the Obama administration, elephant hunting trophies were allowed in countries such as South Africa but not in Zimbabwe because Fish and Wildlife decided in 2015 that the nation had failed to prove that its management of elephants enhanced the population. Zimbabwe could not confirm its elephant population in a way that was acceptable to US officials, and did not demonstrate an ability to implement laws to protect it.
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s new statement did not specify what had changed in that country — where the African elephant population has declined 6 percent in recent years, according to the Great Elephant Census project — to allow hunting trophies. A spokeswoman said an explanation will be published in the Federal Register on Friday.
The shift in US policy comes just days after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke established an ‘‘International Wildlife Conservation Council’’ to advise him on how to increase Americans’ public awareness of conservation, wildlife enforcement, and the ‘‘economic benefits that result from US citizens traveling abroad to hunt.’’
‘‘The conservation and long-term health of big game crosses international boundaries,’’ Zinke said in a statement announcing the group’s creation. ‘‘This council will provide important insight into the ways that American sportsmen and women benefit international conservation from boosting economies and creating hundreds of jobs to enhancing wildlife conservation.’’
Safari Club International, a hunting advocacy group that has consistently opposed any restrictions on importing trophies from abroad, broke the news of the rule change a day ahead of Fish and Wildlife. Its statement included a detail that the agency omitted: A Fish and Wildlife official made the announcement at a forum the Safari Club cohosted in Tanzania, from which elephant trophy imports remain banned. An agency spokeswoman declined to confirm that account.
A representative of the group, along with several other hunting activists, joined Zinke in his office on his first day as he signed one secretarial order aimed at expanding hunting and fishing on federal lands and another reversing an Obama-era policy that would have phased out the use of lead ammunition and tackle in national wildlife refuges by 2022.
This week’s rule change applies to elephants shot in Zimbabwe on or after Jan. 21, 2016, and to those legally permitted to be hunted before the end of next year. A similar rule has been put into place for Zambia, where the Great Elephant Census estimates the animal’s numbers have declined from 200,000 in 1972 to a little more than 21,000 last year.
Zimbabwe is currently in turmoil, with President Robert Mugabe under house arrest as a military coup unfolds. In criticizing the decision, the Humane Society of the United States called the ban on Zimbabwean elephant imports reasonable because Zimbabwe is ‘‘one of the most corrupt countries on Earth.’’ The organization noted that Mugabe celebrated his birthday last year by dining on an elephant.
‘‘It’s a venal and nefarious pay-to-slay arrangement that Zimbabwe has set up with the trophy hunting industry,’’ said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society.
‘‘What kind of message does it send to say to the world that poor Africans who are struggling to survive cannot kill elephants in order to use or sell their parts to make a living, but that it’s just fine for rich Americans to slay the beasts for their tusks to keep as trophies?’’ Pacelle added.
Safari Club International president Paul Babaz said in a statement, ‘‘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.”
‘‘We appreciate the efforts of the [Fish and Wildlife] Service and the US Department of the Interior to remove barriers to sustainable use conservation for African wildlife,’’ Babaz added.
In another potential policy reversal, Fish and Wildlife has posted an online guide for hunters on how to import lion trophies. In 2016, after listing African lion populations as threatened or endangered depending on their location on the continent, the agency established specific requirements for allowing imports of their trophies. The Fish and Wildlife Service also banned imports of trophies from lion populations kept in fenced enclosures to be hunted.
How to treat animal trophies Americans shoot overseas has been a contentious issue for years. The pelts of nearly four dozen polar bears that US citizens shot in Canada in spring 2008 got stuck there after Fish and Wildlife declared the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.