Elephant Trophy Hunting: “Horror show” or method of conservation?
By Kaitlin Fisher
Dec. 5, 2017
How many times have you entered a home and seen an elephant? Not a real elephant, of course, but a painting, maybe? A photo? A sculpture?
Elephants are a symbol of strength, power and majesty. They are among the world’s most beloved animals and yet many people never have the chance to interact with them.
Tyler Schmitt got that chance. After graduating from the University of Guelph in 2014, he took a leap, packed his bags and went to Thailand to live among the elephants.
Schmitt fondly remembers his days spent at Woodys Elephants Training, a sanctuary in Chiang Mai which rescues elephants that have survived a “bad situation.”
“We’d spend time with them, feed them, walk them—man, they love to go on hikes—bathe them in the river,” he said from his Ottawa home.
“They’re intuitive and curious. They’re extremely good at remembering things,” he added. “When you spend time with these animals and you look at them in the eyes, you can tell some things, like they are conscious of what’s going on and how they’re being treated.”
In recent weeks, elephants have been at the heart of a heated debate.
On Nov. 16, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its plan to reverse a ban—implemented by former President Barack Obama in 2014—on importing the remains of African elephants killed as trophies.
Following the announcement, there was a huge public outcry from Americans and people around the world who felt that the ban should remain in place. Petitions circulated and social media was filled with protests and emotionally-charged messages.
On Nov. 19, President Donald Trump contradicted the Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan when he tweeted: “Big-game trophy decision will be announced next week but will be very hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of elephants or any other animal.”
According to Elephanatics, an elephant advocacy organization based in Vancouver, 96 African elephants are killed every day for their ivory. This amounts to more than 35,000 elephants annually. In 1980, there were over 1.3 million elephants in Africa, while today there are less than 415,000.
The status of the ban in the U.S. remains up in the air. Despite many Canadians lashing out on social media about the potential change of policy in the U.S., Canada never had a ban on the importation of elephant trophies in the first place.
Schmitt, who majored in zoology, said he was surprised to discover this.
“Canada is supposed to be one of the leaders in the world. As a first-world country, you should be leading by example,” he said.
In a phone interview from her Toronto office, Melissa Matlow, the wildlife campaign manager from World Animal Protection in Canada, called a ban “essential.”
“They’ve often been described as gentle giants because of the care they put towards their own kind, so to see humans kill them for trophies is particularly appalling,” she said.
Not all Canadians are on the same page. Jason St. Michael, the operations manager of Safari Club International in Canada, said there are places where the elephant population needs to be controlled and managed.
“An elephant will destroy crops, kill human life, and so they must be managed,” he said in a phone interview.
He said is important for farmers to keep the elephant population in check so that their crops and livestock are able to survive.
Safari Club International is an organization which promotes the rights of hunters and recognizes the contributions that hunting can make in conservation efforts.
St. Michael said politicians need to focus on science rather than emotion when it comes to making decisions about the possible implementation of a ban. He also argued that elephant trophy hunting is good for the economy.
“The people that hunt them employ hundreds of people. They also feed communities. No part of the animal is wasted.”
As for the public outcry since the announcement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, St. Michael said that he doesn’t have an issue with other peoples’ beliefs.
“We like to hunt and they don’t want to hunt. But the fact of the matter is that these animals create a lot of economic impact,” he said.
St. Michael said he recognizes that elephants are “easy target animals for anti-hunters.”
“They really are a magical, romantic animal. I mean, they’re beautiful. They’re amazing. The power and the elegance,” he said. “And the numbers aren’t what they were a hundred years ago.”
St. Michael blames the growing human population for the decrease in these animals, but said it can’t go both ways.
“What do you manage? Do you manage human population or do you manage the wildlife population?” he asked.
When it comes to the importation of endangered species, Canada follows the guidelines provided by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). CITES is an international agreement between governments which ensures that trade in wild animals does not threaten their survival.
The species covered by CITES are broken down into three appendices according to the level of protection they need. Appendix I lists species that are threatened with extinction. According to the CITES website, trade in specimens of these species is only allowed in “exceptional circumstances.”
Appendix II accounts for species which aren’t necessarily threatened with extinction, but require a trade that must be controlled in order for them to survive as a species.
Appendix III lists species that are protected in at least one country, which has requested the other parties of the CITES agreement for help in controlling trade.
CITES lists the African elephant as an Appendix I species, except for populations of the animal from Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, which all fall under Appendix II.
According to the CITES database, there have been elephant trophies imported into Canada in recent years from countries outside of these four, meaning that Canada has imported an Appendix I species.
In 1989, CITES made it illegal to sell elephant ivory internationally, although each country has its own regulations regarding ivory sales within their borders. At the World Conservation Congress in 2016, Canada was one of only four countries to oppose the closure of its ivory trade markets.
“That’s terrible that Canada was one of those countries. We should be leading the way on this,” Matlow said. “Canadians care very much about wildlife. Canada is often promoted as a country that people go to to see wildlife. So it seems really contradictory and not reflecting Canadian values to take that position on an international stage.”
Matlow said the backlash over the possible lifting of the U.S. ban shows people relate to elephants.
“The public outcry . . . shows that people care,” she said. “They’re very social, very intelligent animals. When one animal is killed, it impacts the welfare of the entire heard. They grieve the loss of their families members.”
Schmitt agreed. “People just are drawn to them.”
Despite the connection that many people feel to these animals, and the push from organizations such as Elephanatics, there has so far been no progress on the implementation of a ban in Canada. In the U.S., the lifting of the ban is on hold as the government reviews the decision.
In the meantime, the debate ensues as to whether elephant trophy hunting is the “horror show” described by President Trump, or the conservation method needed to save these animals.