There’s a golden opportunity to help protect African elephants now that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed a new Endangered Species Act rule. If finalized, the new rule would better regulate imports of African elephants and their parts, like hunting trophies, to the U.S. We have long advocated that the existing regulations are not strong enough.

African elephant populations are in steep decline. Since the early 20th century, the number of elephants in Africa has plummeted from as many as five million to approximately 400,000. The tide of sport-hunted African elephant trophies that flood into the U.S., year after year, unabated, is making things worse. Just last year, the very rare forest elephant was scientifically classified as critically endangered, having declined by 62% between 2002 and 2011. The savannah elephant was scientifically classified as endangered, having declined by 30% between 2006 and 2016.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for ensuring that any import of an African elephant (or elephant trophy) must promote the conservation of the species and does not contribute to the decline of the species. Current regulations are not strong enough. For instance, the import of live elephants is not even subjected to permit oversight, a position we strongly objected to the last time these regulations were amended.

The proposed rule would be a vast improvement in the following ways:

  • The proposed rule would only allow imports of trophies, skins or live elephants from African countries whose national wildlife legislation is designated in Category One under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Importantly, that list does not include Botswana, Tanzania, or Zambia, countries which are major destinations for trophy hunters. That means this rule could effectively eliminate trophy imports of elephants from those countries, which would be huge.
  • Even for countries that currently have the Category One designation—such as South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia—the proposed rule would add additional criteria for the U.S. government to evaluate before issuing a permit for trophy or live elephant imports.
  • The proposed rule would require that substantial evidence be submitted by range countries (those with jurisdiction over any part of the natural geographic range of the African elephant) before the Service could make the required “enhancement finding” for an import permit. Such information would include whether the populations are large, stable or increasing; whether the foreign governments have the capacity to obtain sound scientific data on the populations, have the legal capacity to manage the populations, and follow the rule of law; and whether viable habitat is secure and not decreasing or degraded. For live elephants, this information would include the assurance that the imported elephants are not pregnant, were legally taken and that family units were kept intact.
  • In addition, the rule would require that funds derived from trophy hunting are used primarily for elephant conservation. We have long argued that a more formalized process for the consideration of any permits is essential for conservation and legal compliance. Under the current regulations, most of the countries exporting trophies to the U.S. consistently fail to provide convincing science-based evidence in support of their hunting quotas and reliable information on trophy hunting revenues.

To be clear, our perspective is that trophy hunting is an anachronistic and horrific practice that we should no longer tolerate. But while we continue to advocate that trophy hunting cannot lawfully be sanctioned under the Endangered Species Act, we welcome additional regulation to mitigate the serious harms that trophy hunting causes. This new rule would be an improvement, and the Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society International, Humane Society Legislative Fund and allied partner organizations have been fighting for stronger regulations for years through litigation.

Because the proposed rule aims to produce genuine conservation benefits for African elephant conservation and improve the welfare of captive elephants in the U.S., we'll be fighting for the approval and implementation of these new regulations. However, it is not the only commitment we’re making on this front. We are also supporting bipartisan language in the Fiscal Year 2023 appropriations bill before the U.S. Congress that prevents funds from being used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to issue permits for the importation of African elephant or lion trophies from Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Zambia—three countries of particular concern.

We’ll submit substantive comments supporting the proposed rule during this 60-day comment period, and you can communicate your enthusiasm for this positive step forward for elephants, too. When it comes to protecting these magnificent animals, there’s really no time to lose.

Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.