Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized critical trade protections for African elephants. Serious threats such as poaching, habitat encroachment and climate change continue to imperil this endangered species; African elephants have suffered a severe population decline over the last 100 years. 

The new rule under the Endangered Species Act seeks to increase scrutiny over trade in live elephants, like those imported for zoos and captive settings, and their parts, including trophies imported from trophy hunting expeditions. The rule does so by strengthening the standard of proof necessary to claim that the taking of an animal trophy benefits the survival of the species. This includes a more rigorous assessment of the population and habitat status of elephant populations abroad, as well as the capacity of foreign governments to manage them for conservation. 

The U.S. is one of the world’s largest markets and transit points for elephants and their products. For years, we have been fighting for stronger trade protections for African elephants, and we are encouraged to see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service begin to address the outsized role the U.S. plays in elephant population declines. 

African elephants are complex, family-centered animals, important within their ecosystems and cherished by people in their range countries and all over the world. And yet for years they have faced the threat of extinction. They are prime targets for both legal and illegal killings—whether it be poaching for their ivory tusks, trophy hunting for bragging rights and a macabre souvenir, or retaliatory killing as shrinking habitats increase human-elephant conflicts. The continental population of African elephants has drastically declined over the past three generations (~85 years): African savanna elephants have lost 60% of their population, while the African forest elephant has lost over 80%, becoming critically endangered in 2020, a trend likely to continue and (we fear) be irreversible.

Despite the extinction crisis that African elephants face, U.S. regulations on elephant imports have been too lenient. The U.S. imports more hunting trophies than any other country in the world, accounting for almost 25% of global trade in elephant hunting trophies between 2014 and 2018. This legal trade exacerbates preexisting pressure on elephant populations from the illegal wildlife trade—a $20 billion illicit worldwide industry to which the U.S. also contributes that pushes many animals, including elephants, to the brink of extinction.

The newly issued final rule greatly improves protections by: 

  • only allowing imports of live elephants or their trophies or skins, with certain limited exceptions, from African countries designated in Category One under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning the country has national legislation that is believed generally to meet the requirements to adequately implement CITES rules and regulations. 

  • keeping Botswana and Zambia, major destinations for trophy hunters off the list, which will effectively eliminate elephant hunting trophy imports from those countries.

  • requiring that substantial evidence be submitted by exporting countries annually that certifies their elephant populations are biologically sustainable and sufficiently large.  

  • requiring that the exporting government has the capacity to obtain sound scientific data on elephant populations, has the legal capacity to manage them for conservation, and follows the rule of law; and that it can provide assurances that viable habitat is secure and not decreasing or degraded. 

  • requiring that, for live elephants, the exporting country must submit assurance that the imported elephants are not pregnant, were legally taken, and that family units were kept intact.

  • requiring that funds derived from trophy hunting are used significantly for elephant conservation. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for ensuring that live African elephant and elephant trophy imports promote the conservation of the species and enhance the survival of the species in the wild—a verification process that results in what’s called an “enhancement finding.” With this new regulation, the U.S. is finally instating some of the stronger trade requirements that African elephants have so desperately needed, making it harder for trophy hunters to import their hunting spoils and for captive wildlife facilities such as zoos to bring animals taken from the wild into the U.S. for exhibition.

We have long argued that a more formalized and stringent process for the consideration of any import permits is essential for conservation and legal compliance. Under the previous regulations, most of the countries exporting trophies to the U.S. consistently failed to provide convincing science-based evidence in support of their hunting quotas and reliable information on trophy hunting revenues.

We have also long argued that taking elephants from the wild for placement in captivity is not humane. Captive facilities are not suited to house and care for elephants, who in the wild can roam dozens of miles each day with their tightly knit herds, nor can they maintain them in healthful and humane conditions. In captivity, these social and intellectually complex creatures often develop physical and psychological problems, including foot disorders, arthritis, weight issues, neurotic behaviors, and reproductive difficulties Some captive elephants have been documented rejecting or even killing their own infants. Others have attacked or killed other elephants with whom they are housed. These problems do not tend to occur in the wild.  

In the humane world we envision, the one we’re working toward, there is no place for trophy hunting and the import of live wild elephants for captivity. These archaic practices can no longer be tolerated, and there is no place for trophy hunting as a means of funding local conservation efforts. Instead, the slaughter of charismatic and imperiled animals should be replaced by sustainable development initiatives, such as responsible ecotourism, an enterprise that keeps animals alive for their own sake and for ours. Until that vision becomes a reality, we support and celebrate steps to increase protections for elephants. These stronger regulations will mitigate extreme harms to elephants, their families and their closely bonded herds, and help prevent the species from teetering on the edge of extinction.

We will continue to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make sure this rule is strongly enforced. These animals deserve nothing less.

Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.