We have just learned about a heartless and illegal hunt that took the life of a male elephant in South Africa’s Limpopo province earlier this month.

Here’s what we know at this point: The hunting party consisted of a trophy hunting client, a hunting guide, a reserve representative and a backup rifleman, according to a public letter issued by Balule Nature Reserve. The trophy hunter discharged the initial gunshot, wounding the elephant, and the reserve representative and the hunting guide fired subsequent shots to bring the elephant down. But the hunt did not end there.

The injured elephant kept fighting for his life, heading toward an adjacent ecotourism reserve, where trophy hunting is prohibited. But the hunting party followed the elephant on foot, and a helicopter was later dispatched to aid in the search. When the elephant was located on the adjacent eco-estate, the helicopter chased the animal back to the hunting property within Balule, where the hunting party fired the final shots, killing him.

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It is reported that approximately eight shots were discharged over an extended period before the elephant was eventually killed. We are looking into other elephant trophy hunts that have occurred within this same reserve. And while we don’t know the details of who this elephant was, we know he was an individual with his own preferences and needs, who fought until the end to survive despite the terrible pain and fear he must have been experiencing as he desperately tried to escape.

The details of the hunt are enough to incite outrage among almost anyone, even hunters who value fair sportsmanship. But the hunt wasn’t just immoral, it was also illegal.

This elephant killing flies in the face of the prevailing High Court of the Western Cape’s binding decision to temporarily halt the hunting of elephant, black rhino and leopard, which was issued in April 2022 after Humane Society International/Africa legally challenged South Africa’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment on hunting quotas for those species. That decision explicitly prohibits permits from being issued for trophy hunting and/or export of African elephants, leopards and black rhinos in South Africa for the duration of the lawsuit currently underway.

Our work and the work of countless other researchers and conservationists have shown us the deep familial and social connections that elephants form within their herds. They are known to pass important social and generational knowledge to each other to help future generations survive; they form bonds and play with each other; they mourn their dead and defend their families. Older bull elephants—the ones most coveted by trophy hunters—have shown to suppress aggression in younger bull elephants, a key social feature amongst them that can serve to reduce human-elephant conflict. Elephants also show affection and care in familiar ways, by putting their heads together, rubbing their ears and even embracing each other’s trunks. They are truly sentient, social beings who feel the impact and loss of their members from trophy hunting, impacts that can have generational consequences.

Sadly, African elephant populations are in steep decline, mainly due to poaching for their ivory. Since the early 19th century, the number of elephants across Africa has plummeted from as many as 27 million to approximately 400,000, and trophy hunting can contribute to and compound this staggering population trend. Of course, there are regional variations in elephant populations: In South Africa, the small national herd of approximately 30,000 elephants is reportedly increasing, especially where alternative humane population management interventions such as immunocontraception are not practiced. In any context, trophy hunting is quite simply a horrific form of “entertainment,” lacking any valid justification, especially in a world where environmental crises and other human-induced factors already threaten the survival of so many populations of animals.

Elephant feet tables for sale at a U.S. auction in October 2021.

While we continue to advocate for ending trophy hunting for good, we also work on rallying support for additional interim regulation of trophy imports to mitigate the serious harms that trophy hunting causes.

The U.S. imports more hunting trophies than any other country, and the import of African elephant trophies flown into the U.S., year after year, from trophy hunts abroad seems nothing less than absurd in light of the extant threats to the species. We won’t stop fighting against trophy hunting until the only way to legally shoot an elephant is with a telephoto lens.

You can take a stand against trophy hunting by telling the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to better control the importation of African elephants and their parts into the U.S.

Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.