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Update from the USFWS and CITES Look-Ahead

Last month, SCI Foundation hosted its annual African Wildlife Consultative Forum in Maputo, Mozambique which was attended by SCI’s advocacy team, African government officials, community leaders, wildlife biologists, and other hunting and conservation stakeholders. Each year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) sends representatives to the forum to provide updates on one of the most critical issues affecting African conservation efforts: the status of trophy import permitting decisions for American hunters. 

CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, regulates trade of wildlife, including hunting trophies of game species’ listed on CITES’ Appendices. Listing on Appendix II indicates that continued, unregulated international trade might threaten a species’ conservation status, while listing on Appendix I indicates that a species is threatened with extinction and is or may be affected by trade. In the United States, many CITES-listed species are also listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). In addition to the requirements for trade under CITES, if a species is also listed under the ESA, trade in hunting trophies of such species usually requires that hunting enhances the overall survival of the species, adding another level of complexity to the process. Not only is the ESA outdated and cumbersome, but federal bureaucracy and red tape further complicates the USFWS permitting process; and for several key species like lion and elephant, the import time can take years. 

At AWCF, USFWS representatives provided an overview of this permitting process in the United States and recent updates to their enhancement findings. Rather than determining enhancement from the range state management only, the USFWS looks at harvest location, outfitter practices, use of fees, local laws and regulations, and overall conservation practices like community benefits and anti-poaching. Understanding of this process, from hunter, operator, and range state management authority greatly helps with permitting decisions. The USFWS’s attendance at AWCF over the years has improved US-African relationships, opened dialogue between the various stakeholders, and facilitated real progress in permitting.  

The most important update to AWCF attendees was the status of permit processing for CITES-regulated and ESA-listed species, particularly elephants. Elephant populations, like many other species, benefit from well-regulated hunting. While some parts of Africa, namely protectionist nations in West Africa, have small or no established elephant populations, areas of southern Africa have severe over-concentrations. Elephants, as ecosystem engineers, can significantly change landscapes and when there are too many, actually destroy it. Habitat is overexploited, and trees are wiped out, causing harm to the vegetation and other species. Most importantly, the local communities living alongside this dangerous wildlife suffer the highest cost through loss of human life and property damage. While rural people are left to pay for conflict, the international community remains largely opposed to them benefitting from elephants through hunting and other products. Although hunting elephants is legal in many countries in Africa, it often takes years for USFWS to approve hunting trophy imports due to CITES and ESA requirements. This cumbersome and lengthy process by USFWS deters hunters, which leads to less elephant management, more habitat destruction, and more human-wildlife conflict. 

During their presentation at AWCF, USFWS representatives reported that since October of 2021 they have completed 112 elephant application reviews, mostly from Zimbabwe and Namibia. While this number is significant compared to the near-zero completed in previous years, at least some of those reviews resulted in denials for import applications. Trophy hunting also does very little to address the literal thousands of elephants that need to be managed in countries like Botswana and Zimbabwe. AWCF attendees ranging from community leaders to landowners to scientific authorities criticized the USFWS saying that current lack of action and support from United States is handcuffing the management of African wildlife. Rural Africans must benefit from wildlife to incentivize conservation and sustainable use is the best solution to mitigating conflict and promoting long-term biodiversity.

A positive update is the status of bontebok import processing. Thanks in part to SCI’s advocacy efforts and engagements at SCIF’s AWCF, USFWS is once again issuing permits for the importation of sport-hunted bontebok, an endangered-listed species under the ESA. After a years-long delay in processing permit applications, USFWS is now working through a backlog of applications and approving those that meet certain requirements. Moving forward, most hunters who apply to import a bontebok will likely receive a permit to do so. This progress was solidified by a USFWS field visit to South African bontebok ranches following the AWCF conference. 

In conjunction with AWCF meetings, USFWS representatives are able to make important site visits to see on-the-ground conservation work of hunting operators. While CITES and the ESA requirements slow down the import process, the avoidable bureaucracy of US government agencies is an equal culprit. Therefore, it is critical for USFWS technical staff to meet with their African peers and understand the realities of wildlife management on the ground. AWCF remains the leading conference in this matter. We thank the USFWS for their participation and encourage them to listen to the people closest to African wildlife. 

Next week, a delegation from SCI and SCIF will travel to Panama for CITES’ 19th Conference of the Parties (CoP). This CoP will decide the listing status of several species relevant to hunting and sustainable use. SCI/F’s top issues are the proposal to transfer Hippopotamus from Appendix II to Appendix I (opposed); transfer Appendix II listed elephant population to Appendix I (opposed); transfer Namibia’s population of Southern White Rhino from Appendix I to Appendix II (support); and a proposal for participatory mechanisms for rural communities in CITES (support). As we see every year at AWCF, these decisions have direct effects on people and animals in Africa. International bodies must listen to Africa’s voice first. 

SCI and SCI Foundation will continue to be leaders in sustainable use policy and look forward to the work ahead at CITES and beyond. Stay tuned for updates from Panama! 

More information on CITES and SCI/F’s involvement can be found here

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