Biden bested by Boris on trophy hunting

Dec 17, 2021 | Commentary


In a move that will help elephants, giraffes and other at-risk animals, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government recently finalized a bill banning trophy imports of imperiled species that will be sent to parliament for consideration. 

According to U.K. officials, the bill will ban imports of “nearly 6,000 animals that are currently threatened by international trade” and “1,000 additional species which are considered near-threatened or worse.” 

The bill is a great move. After all, we’re in the midst of an extinction crisis. United Nations scientists have identified human exploitation as a major driver of species loss. 

t just makes sense to take killing imperiled species for fun and decor off the table. And it sends the message that everyone — even the wealthy — needs to alter their relationship with wildlife and shift from possession to coexistence. 

So, where’s the United States on this? Not where we need to be — even with a conservation-minded administration in office. 

The United States is a major player in the wildlife market. We consume roughly 20 percent of the global wildlife trade. And when it comes to trade in hunting trophies, we import more animal trophies than any other country in the world, according to the Congressional Research Service.

When most people think of a hunting trophy, they imagine elephant heads and tusks, maned lion mounts and leopard skins. But U.S. trophy imports include everything from fish and birds to reptiles and lots of mammals. It can get bizarre: baboons stuffed with a hand held out to hold your keys, or 7-foot-tall giraffe neck-and-head mounts. 

Some of these “trophy” species are listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Roughly 640 foreign species are protected under the act (although many are not trophy hunted). While the Endangered Species Act does not stop U.S. citizens from killing these species in other countries, it generally prohibits imports of endangered species and allows for a prohibition on the import of trophies taken from threatened species.

Yet, trophy hunters still bring in the bodies, heads, tails, legs and skins of threatened and endangered species all the time. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permits these imports under an exception limited to activities that “enhance the species’ survival.” 

Doesn’t killing an endangered or threatened species undeniably hurt its survival? Yes, but trophy hunters, in a Wizard of Oz-esque manner, argue that the benefits of the fees they pay outweigh the imperiled animal’s death lurking behind the monetary curtain.  

With a few strokes of a pen — or columns of Federal Register text — President Joe Biden’s administration could peel back that curtain and foreclose this practice. Without Congress. 

Congress didn’t leave the Fish and Wildlife Service the wiggle room to weigh ancillary factors like hunting fees and their use. The act certainly doesn’t contemplate commodification of threatened and endangered species under such a “pay-to-play” regimen. 

The statute authorizes permits for activities that enhance the species’ survival — like capturing condors for captive breeding to save them from extinction. The idea behind that language was to greatly limit the number of permits issued. 

Yet, as just one example, the United States permits an average of more than 200 leopards (a species protected as “threatened” under the act) to be imported as trophies every year. 

The world is facing an epic biodiversity crisis. We could lose 1 million species to extinction in the coming years, even as the United States leads the world in importing hunting trophies. During his presidential campaign, Biden stated that he opposed allowing trophy hunters to import their kills into the United States. But the Biden administration has done nothing to rein in U.S. trophy imports. 

In fact, it’s done the opposite. In August, the Biden administration struck a deal with trophy hunters in which it agreed to restart processing for permits to import trophies taken from elephants — a threatened species. Ironically, the settlement stemmed from trophy hunters’ allegations that the Trump administration had put a hold on elephant trophy imports after a 2017 Trump tweet calling trophy hunting a “horror show.” 

So, Boris has clearly bested Biden when it comes to curbing trophy imports. But there’s still time for Biden to combat this practice. Halting imports from thrill kills of imperiled species isn’t a cure-all, but it’s one crucial battle in the wider war against our planetary extinction crisis. 

Tanya Sanerib is legal director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s International program.

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