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On July 23, 2014, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) chose to uphold their ruling and continued the suspension on elephant imports from Zimbabwe. The authorization of imports requires the FWS to assess whether the take of the animal contributes to the overall enhancement of the species. In their finding, FWS states that proper management plans, resources and ability to implement management plans, reports on population status and distribution, government participation, and the role of hunting are all considered during the evaluation.
After considering the information provided by Zimbabwe and other organizations on elephants, FWS lists dated management plans, insufficient data on population numbers and an unclear understanding of present law enforcement as reasons behind their decision. The FWS based their decision on a lack of current information; not the “the best scientific and commercial data available,” which is what the FWS continuously claims is used to make such decisions. In other words, the FWS set specific expectations of information that were never made clear. If updated management plans are required, then it would make good diplomatic sense to provide adequate notice to and expectations of the Zimbabwe government. The initial import ban was initiated on April 4, 2014, and Zimbabwe was given zero notice. To our surprise, the FWS waited until April 4, 2014 to request updated information from Zimbabwe.
The accuracy of the FWS enhancement finding will be determined retroactively. Several elephant studies are planned for 2014. The Great Elephant Census, for example, is a trans-national elephant survey using the same census methodology, and is set to conclude by 2015. This project will provide accurate and up-to-date trends on the number and distribution of African elephants through aerial surveys. The findings will produce much needed information that will allow for proper analysis and consideration of elephant management plans in Africa. Currently, Zimbabwe reports that their elephant population is increasing and exceeds carrying capacity in many areas. The Great Elephant Census will hopefully validate the truth of this report, or the validity of the FWS negative enhancement finding.
Considering the extreme loss of conservation revenue associated with the import ban and the fact that elephants are above carrying capacity in several areas, SCI Foundation disapproves of the abrupt actions taken by the FWS. This is not how bilateral cooperation should be undertaken. SCI Foundation is working to assist Zimbabwe in providing the necessary information to ensure the import ban is not continued into 2015.
With the tidal wave of anti-hunting propaganda occurring in today’s media, it is not surprising to think that policy may be influenced by political agendas. It is the FWS’s duty to overlook these sentiments and make its decision based on sound scientific research. The decision to suspend imports of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe will be re-evaluated in December, or sooner if additional information is provided to address the gaps previously listed. Zimbabwe must also demonstrate that it has made changes and progress in their conservation efforts. SCI Foundation is greatly anticipating this reevaluation and hopes that the available science will not be ignored.
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