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In another presidency, at a different time, the Interior Department's sudden re-reversal on importing elephant trophies--the head, tusks and other body parts of hunted game--could make sense. But the Trump administration has shown persistently bad judgment on conservation, making it difficult to trust that it will do more good than harm.

Here's the background: The Obama administration banned elephant trophy imports from Zimbabwe several years ago, arguing that the agency did not have strong enough reason to believe that the country was properly regulating the trophy hunting it permitted. Following further consultation with the Zimbabwean government, the Trump Interior Department moved to overturn that ban in November. Though career staff made the call, the timing was colossally poor: Zimbabwe, a country already rife with corruption, was in the middle of a military coup. After a backlash, including from some conservative commentators, President Donald Trump halted the reversal pending further study.

Given the unrest, that was the obvious decision. Yet that does not mean that elephant trophy imports should be banned in every case. The Interior Department's logic last November, when it tried to lift restrictions, was that allowing limited, well-regulated trophy hunting would pump money into local communities and conservation efforts. A few animals might die, but local landowners would find value in preserving the herd as a whole. Private game reserves can charge thousands for a trophy hunt, a revenue stream that is hard to replace with photography tours.

There are examples of regulated trophy hunting working relatively well, as in Namibia. There are also examples of it failing, as in Tanzania.

So last week the Interior Department announced a new policy on trophy hunting. Instead of issuing blanket rules, it would review requests to import trophies on a case-by-case basis. This could make sense: Hunters interested in importing a trophy should have to document that they got it from a reputable reserve, no matter where it was located.

Yet the Trump administration offered unsettlingly few details about how case-by-case decisions would be made, and it has earned no trust on conservation. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's enthusiasm for hunting, not to mention that of Trump's big-game-hunting sons, is only the beginning. More generally, Trump has staffed his administration with officials overtly hostile to sound environmental management. Though they did not dictate the outcome, reviewing the trophy import policy was reportedly a priority for Interior's political staff.

It is crucial to get this right. If countries see that only well-run herd-management programs will result in hunting revenues, they will have an incentive to improve their conservation. If, however, American hunters are allowed to bring back trophies from countries where the connection between the money they spend and the preservation of the herd is not clear, it will encourage countries to see trophy hunting as a corrupt revenue opportunity.

Editorial on 03/13/2018

Print Headline: The elephant walk-back

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