I know at least five Nigerians, including myself, who have had to throw large chunks of beef in the trash as we approached US customs officials. US border policies don’t allow the import of meat products from African countries because they may carry diseases. That’s fair.
However, it is perfectly legal to bring in trophy animals from Africa. They are the remains of animals hunted, primarily by Americans, for pleasure, or to prove “virility, prowess and dominance” as a report by the Humane Society International puts it.
In May, a Florida hunter gained approval to import the skin, skull, claws, and teeth of an African lion he killed in a game reserve in Tanzania. It’s the first known trophy lion to be allowed in the United States since 2016, when the Obama administration rightly placed a ban on trophy animal imports from some African countries, after lions and elephants were listed as “vulnerable’’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The US Endangered Species Act also lists them as endangered and threatened.
But the Trump administration has quietly distanced itself from the ban and reversed policies. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, which regulates trophy imports, said it is “making findings for trophy imports on an application-by-application basis.”
True to its word, the agency approved another hunter’s application last month to import an endangered rhino he had killed in Namibia.
The policy reversal has stirred debate about the benefits of trophy hunting to vulnerable animal populations and to local communities.
Trophy imports into the United States reached over a million in the past decade, according to Humane Society International. A significant number came from Canada, but African countries like South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Namibia, and Zambia provided more than 45 percent of trophy imports. Over 30,000 trophies came from Africa’s Big Five species: lion, elephant, leopard, white rhinoceros, and buffalo. All except the African buffalo are listed as “vulnerable’’ or “threatened’’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the US Endangered Species Act.
Supporters of hunting claim that trophy hunting provides economic benefits to African countries. Wildlife and Fishery Service’s spokeswoman Laury Marshall has said legal hunting is a good way to raise revenue and incentivize local communities to protect wildlife conservation areas. A report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature agrees that well-regulated trophy hunting is beneficial to communities: Hunting fees pay for law enforcement and is accruable to locals. Hunters pay up to $70,000 for African lion trophies.
But the report also acknowledges that illegal activities are common in trophy hunting, including hunting excessively in the wrong areas and killing unpermitted species. The seemingly deliberate 2015 killing of Cecil, Zimbabwe’s protected and beloved lion , is one oft-cited example of malpractice in trophy hunting. But claims that hunting adds significantly to country revenues are overstated. A report from eight countries in eastern and southern Africa found that trophy hunting adds little to GDP, only about 0.03 percent, compared to tourism, which adds up to 5 percent. The thousands of dollars American hunters pay to shop for game rarely trickles down to the rural communities where those animals are found.
Tanya Sanerib, international legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity told National Geographic that importing trophies from countries like Tanzania, which has a history of mismanaging wildlife, is questionable. The country allows for killing of older male lions, but oversight and accountability regarding this rule are reported to be weak.
Sarenib also pointed out to National Geographic that permitting lion trophy imports under the Endangered Species Act requires hunters to prove that killing the animal provided a benefit to its population, but that the Fish and Wildlife Service has not successfully shown how it has.
Poorly regulated trophy hunting certainly does not help the situation of vulnerable animal populations in Africa. African elephants have gone from over 10 million in the 1930s to about 400,000 today, thanks to poaching for ivory, habitat and prey loss, retaliatory killings, and trophy hunting. These factors have contributed to the rapidly declining numbers of African lions too, according to Humane Society International. Lion populations have been halved since 1994. Because hunters often go for the biggest male lions, which are likely to be pack leaders, they unwittingly trigger a chain of killings: The death of a pack leader creates chaos within the pride as other male lions fight to become dominant. The new alpha often kills all the offspring of the former leader.
In many African cultures, hunters kill animals for food and rarely for fun. Traditionally, the Maasai of eastern Africa prove their prowess by killing lions as a rite of passage and to protect their livestock, but that practice has been outlawed, and conservationist groups are now working to change attitudes in these communities.
Conservationists fear endangered African elephants will be targeted next because of the relaxed US restrictions. The trophy hunting industry caters to ultra-rich white men, often seen in pictures wielding their guns as they sit on downed lions or elephants.
On the upside, the United States may reverse steps yet again. A bill introduced into the US House — Conserving Ecosystems by Ceasing the Importation of Large Animal Trophies Act, named for Cecil the lion — aims to ban animal imports from Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Tanzania. It’s a big step for these vulnerable populations.
“Lions and elephants should be admired as they roam in the wild,” Stephanie Kurose, a specialist at the US-based Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement, “not have their heads hanging on someone’s wall.”
Shola Lawal is the 2019 Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow at the International Women's Media Foundation and a research fellow at MIT’s Center for International Studies.