The true cost of a dead elephant

Editor’s note: The following op-ed appeared in Scientific American in response to the Trump Administration’s recent announcements on the import of elephant trophies. Click here to view the original post.

MAUN, Botswana — When the rains finally come to this corner of southern Africa, the land is transformed. Dry rivers flow again. Boreholes fill. Springs seep to the green surface.

Water is life, and elephants know how to find it. They can hear thunderstorms 150 miles away and their migrations are so attuned to the rain, their annual return is synonymous in some African cultures with the start of the rainy season.

Here in Botswana, the famed Okavango Delta is home to the world’s largest population of elephants. It’s gateway is Maun, a small and dusty town built upon wildlife tourism.

But you won’t hear the crack of large-gauge rifles here — so-called “elephant guns” — except in target practice by the wildlife rangers who carry them for safety.

That’s because, four years ago, the government banned hunting entirely.

In November, President Donald Trump’s administration initially announced the suspension of a previous ban on importing elephant trophies into the United States from two African nations. According to the landmark Great Elephant Census, there are now only 350,000 African savanna elephants left in the wild — down 30 percent in seven years. Populations have declined in both Zimbabwe and Zambia over that period. Meanwhile, Zimbabwe is in the midst of a crisis of governance, making this announcement particularly hard to understand.

The move was roundly criticized, and the president soon tweeted a reversal putting the suspension on hold, saying he needed more information.

Of any place on Earth, this town may have the answers he is looking for.

The economics of trophy hunting have long been questionable. An elephant in the wild is estimated to be worth as much as $1.6 million in tourism revenue over its lifetime. Compare that with $21,000 for a dead animal’s tusks or a few hundred thousand dollars for the most expensive permitted hunts.

A report commissioned by Humane Society International found that trophy hunting accounts for less than 1 percent of total tourism revenue for eight African countries, and numerous reports have suggested that even this small slice never makes it to the communities meant to benefit.

But how does this actually look on the ground?

These economics have panned out for Botswana, southern Africa’s most prosperous country. Tourism — most of it centered on the country’s worldclass wildlife — accounts for $1.6 billion in total economic impact, which is about 10 percent of the country’s economy. That figure has grown, even as shutterclicks have replaced bullets as the only legal method for shooting an elephant.

Botswana’s move has coincided with a continent-leading crackdown on poaching and illegal wildlife trade — a shadowy economy worth many billions of dollars and linked to transboundary criminal syndicates and terror networks such as al Shabaab and the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Botswana’s president, Ian Khama, has personally led his country’s commitment to wildlife — in contrast to some of his neighbors — in taking a stand against hunting and ivory sales.

The action has had a measurable impact on wildlife. A comprehensive study has shown that elephant populations have in fact fled to Botswana from neighboring countries with higher poaching — suggesting that elephants can sense where they are under threat.

President Trump would do well to look to the example of Botswana. President Khama has helped lead a coalition of 15 African nations — known as the Elephant Protection Initiative — committed to closing their ivory markets and eliminating or placing their ivory stockpiles out of commercial use. It is an African stand for Africa’s elephants.

Meanwhile, China and the United Kingdom — two of the world’s largest ivory importers — have announced plans to close their markets. The United States has also been a leader, shutting down its domestic market for ivory and supporting the work of other countries in doing so. Last year, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international regulatory body, recommended that all ivory markets shutter.

This international movement is encouraging, but it is fragile. As recently as 2008, CITES approved the sale of many tons of ivory from African nations to customers in Asia — ivory that ended up serving as a front for a massive expansion of the illegal market, according to experts.

In some situations, hunting can provide valuable income for conservation when it is well governed. But keeping the ban on elephant trophy imports into the U.S. is about more than that. It is about the credibility of the United States to lead. If we allow an American hunter to import a trophy, how do we ask a Chinese ivory carver to forsake his craft or an antique dealer to shelve her inventory?

That is the real cost of an elephant shot by an American hunter: the erosion of our moral authority and the dangerous signal it sends to the world.

At this crucial moment in time, when the world is finally a hair’s breadth away from ending the trade in ivory, the Trump administration can set this right. And together, we can stop the scourge of poaching, as well as the use of ivory as fuel for criminal gangs and terror networks.

Only then can elephants be free to follow the rains.

Ed. note: Post updated December 4