Should the United States allow imports of elephant body parts from Zimbabwe and Zambia?

Programming note: For more about the debate over big game trophies, watch CNN Films’ “Trophy,” premiering Sunday, January 14, at 9pm ET/PT, on CNN.

Washington CNN  — 

To look at, they’re what most would call elephant tusks, ears or tails.

Inside the culture of big game hunting, they’re called trophies: animal parts valued as prizes gained during the hunt.

Gruesome symbols of death to some. Treasured souvenirs by others.

And right now, the United States isn’t sure what to do with them. President Trump, facing the biggest decision of its kind in years, must determine whether elephant tusks and other body parts can be legally imported into the United States from Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Traditionally, the United States has allowed trophies to be imported only if countries proved hunting would not harm the overall population of the endangered species. But Zambia and Zimbabwe were found to fall short of that guideline, and elephant trophies from those nations were banned from the United States.

Last November, President Trump’s administration moved to change that rule. It has led to a legal and political standoff pitting hunting advocates against animal rights groups, and it has put the Trump family’s stance on big game hunting under scrutiny.

It also has contributed to the heated, emotional debate about the business of big game conservation, and whether hunting should be a part of it.

Animal rights groups are outraged the practice is allowed at all.

But hunting advocates say the big game trade can save elephants and other endangered species when profits are used to responsibly manage herds in ways that increase animal populations.

The ban

It all started nearly four years ago, when the Obama administration banned elephant trophy imports from Zambia and Zimbabwe, saying the countries failed to provide the adequate proof.

Last November the US Fish and Wildlife Service said it was lifting the ban, saying the countries had improved their conservation programs so hunts “will enhance the survival of the African elephant.”

But after a public outcry, President Trump tweeted he would “Put big game trophy decision on hold until such time as I review all conservation facts,” adding, “Under study for years. Will update soon with Secretary [of Interior Ryan] Zinke. Thank you!”

Nearly two months after the President’s tweet, CNN asked the Department of the Interior about the status of the review, and a spokesperson responded: “President Trump and Secretary Zinke have met on this subject and there will be no new permits granted for elephant trophies for Zimbabwe or Zambia.”

“This will remain in place until the Department of the Interior has completed a comprehensive review and the President has made a determination based upon their recommendations,” the spokesman said.

Despite multiple requests for comment, White House officials declined to say whether the review is ongoing, when it might conclude, or when the President’s decision may be announced.

A challenge in court

Meanwhile hunting advocates and animal rights groups are both claiming victory in a case challenging the ban before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a split ruling the court upheld the ban while litigation continues, saying the Fish and Wildlife Service was within its rights to implement the prohibition. But at the same time the court scolded the government for failing to conduct a federally mandated public review of the impact of the rule before enacting it.

It sent that part of the case back to a lower court with orders to tell the Fish and Wildlife Service to come up with rules to implement the old ban.

Attorney for the Humane Society of the United States, Anna Frostic, told CNN the ruling is a win because the “D.C. Circuit opinion completely upheld the decision on the substantive grounds.” She added that, “the federal government must carefully consider the science demonstrating that trophy hunting negatively impacts the conservation of imperiled species,” before changing rules already in place.

That means the November decision suspending the Obama era ban may not be in compliance under this ruling, because it failed to follow those same public comment requirements.

An attorney for Safari Club International, a hunting advocacy group that along with the National Rifle Association filed the suit in 2014, said, “The court did not expressly set aside the findings, nor did it uphold them.” The group says it is waiting to see how the district court rules before deciding its next steps.

In a statement to supporters claiming victory, Safari Club International said it believes the ruling will allow hunters’ voices to be heard during “the process of decision-making that affects the importation of legally hunted wildlife.” The club added the government “will not be able to impose uninformed, abrupt importation bans, like it did in 2014.”

How we got here

In November, when word leaked out that the Trump administration was preparing to reverse the ban, conservationists sounded alarms. Among them: Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, who argued that elephant hunting is “just thrill killing, bragging rights, trophies for a threatened species, the largest land animal in the world.” Pacella said “shooting an elephant is like shooting a parked car. I mean there’s no sport in it either.”

But a November statement from the US Fish and Wildlife Service disagreed, saying in part, “legal, well-regulated sport hunting as part of a sound management program can benefit the conservation of certain species by providing incentives to local communities to conserve the species and by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation.”

Connection to President Trump’s game-hunting son

The Fish and wildlife Service is overseen by the Department of the Interior, which is run by Zinke. In fact, Zinke’s appointment was championed by President Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., an avid big game hunter.

In 2011, Trump Jr. and brother Eric Trump were photographed posing with their kills, including an elephant, during a hunting trip to Zimbabwe. In one picture, Trump Jr. is seen holding the dead elephant’s severed tail. The photos first appeared on Gothamist.

When Trump Jr. addressed the photos at the time, he did not deny their authenticity, saying, “I can assure you it was not wasteful.” Adding on Twitter, “The villagers were so happy for the meat which they don’t often get to eat.”

How does Trump really feel about big game hunting?

Even then, there were signs that future President Donald Trump and his sons had different opinions on the issue. In a 2012 interview Trump told Extra, “Everybody tells me what they did in the world of hunting is fine. But I’m not a fan.”

In November, the President made clear his opinion on the killings had not changed, tweeting he would, “be very hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of elephants or any other animal.”

From 2007 to 2014, elephant populations in the African savanna plummeted 30%, according to the Great Elephant Census, a two-year study that mapped and tracked elephant herds across 18 countries.

In some places elephant populations have dropped at higher rates, primarily due to ivory poaching. And experts now say about 350,000 remain, down from an estimated 1 million as recently as the 1970s, and a potential 20 million that roamed the region before Africa was colonized by European countries.

Animal rights activists also point out that elephant trophies are still allowed to be imported from other countries in Africa, and note that other activities like selling elephant hides or other elephant parts are still considered legal – and many can be imported into the United States with proper permits from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.