Late last week, the Dallas Safari Club announced that they would be auctioning off an elephant hunt in Africa as part of their annual fundraising gala. This sadly echoes the club's auction last year for the opportunity to kill a critically endangered black rhino in Namibia -- a stunt that raised $350,000 in the dubious name of "conservation" and also raised the disdain of citizens around the world who could not see the sense in killing an animal in danger of extinction for sport. Despite the club's effort to pass off the rhino auction as a conservation initiative, they have since hinted that they will withdraw their conservation funding pledge if they are denied a permit to bring the trophy from the hunt back to the U.S., thereby stripping away the conservation rhetoric and showing it to be merely the blood-sport safari that most people suspected it always was.
With the club's recent announcement of the latest hunt auction, they moved the debate about killing imperiled species for sport into the public eye again, this time with a different beloved and imperiled animal, the African elephant.
In reality there is no debate. Americans overwhelmingly reject sport hunting of elephants; A recent poll conducted by the Beekeeper Group on behalf of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found that 89 percent of Americans oppose hunting elephants for sport.* And that same poll found that 83 percent of Americans want the U.S. to ban all imports of sport-hunted elephant trophies in light of elephant population declines. But despite this clear mandate to end trophy hunts, the killing continues: Between 2003 and 2012, the U.S. averaged almost 400 sport-hunted elephant trophy imports a year. This is roughly half of the global total killed for sport during that same decade.
Elephants -- like rhinos -- are in the midst of a poaching crisis. They are being slaughtered for their valuable ivory tusks across Africa, at the rate of 1 every 15 minutes on average -- or 35,000 a year. With fewer than half a million left in the wild, this rate of killing could lead them to extinction in the near future.
Elephants are intelligent, social animals that have an understanding of death and loss, and a bullet is a bullet, whether it comes from the barrel of a rich American or a Sudanese militant. It is still just as violent and brutal a death. Killing elephants for sport is both barbaric and unnecessary -- and particularly troubling in light of the current crisis.
Luckily, someone reconsidered the elephant hunt auction this weekend, and the club announced that the hunting package including an elephant kill would be withdrawn from the gala auction before the event started. And while I and other animal-lovers are glad to see this particular hunt pulled off the table, it bears little consolation for the hundreds of other elephants killed for "sport" each year.
The Dallas Safari Club has made much of the fact that African elephants are not categorized as "endangered" under U.S. law. This is splitting hairs at best, as the species is currently listed as "vulnerable" -- or having a high risk of extinction in the wild -- by the IUCN Red List, and "threatened" under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which means that it is "likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range." Just because they don't have the official "endangered" designation certainly doesn't mean that they aren't imperiled, and the club is inherently saying that their policy is to kill until the crisis is nearly absolute. Not to mention that African elephants received their threatened status back in 1978; since then they have lost half of their habitat, and 60 percent of their population.
In 2014, the U.S. made a bold move by suspending imports of elephant trophies taken from Tanzania and Zimbabwe, based on concerns about these countries' wildlife management practices. An even bolder move is called for given the global elephant crisis -- since no one is denying African elephants are facing extinction if current rates of killing continue, why not extend that ban to all elephant trophy import into the U.S.? We do not need to be adding to the threats hastening the demise of this species.
Dallas Safari Club's argument boils down to an oxymoron: "We must kill them to save them." It doesn't make sense, and it just isn't true; IFAW and other organizations are working with communities on the ground in Africa to improve standards of living for people and reduce the threats to wildlife. We can make room for elephants in our world without having to kill them.
According to the International Ranger Federation, in the past decade over 1,000 park rangers were killed in the line of duty. What message does it send to African rangers who are risking their lives to stop poachers from gunning down elephants and rhinos, while at the same time rich Americans are throwing down bags of money so that they can do the exact same brutal killing for fun, without any consequence?
During the recent public input stage for the import permit from Dallas Safari Club's auctioned black rhino trophy, the US Fish & Wildlife Service received more than 15,000 comments and 135,000 petition signatures, making it one of the most contentious decisions in the agency's history (most trophy import requests generate three to eight comments each). Americans are solidly against this. They know that killing an animal to "save it" is a backward argument. It doesn't make sense with imperiled rhinos. And it doesn't make sense with imperiled elephants. It's 2015, and we are better than that.
The U.S. government should listen to the American people and stop imports altogether of elephant sport-hunted trophies, and deny any permit requests for trophy-hunted rhinos; that is the only thing that makes sense.
*The poll findings were based on 1,000 interviews among likely voters nationwide. The interviews were conducted online from September 9-12, 2014. The margin of error at the 95 percent confidence level is ±3.1. Poll was conducted by the Beekeeper Group.
Jeff Flocken is the North American Regional Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).