Trump Administration's New Wildlife Conservation Council Is Actually Just a Bunch of Hunters

After we got word last week that the world's last male northern white rhino had died, it became urgently clear that we must all prioritize wildlife conservation. With only two female northern white rhinos now left on Earth, the subspecies is on the brink of extinction. One of two white rhino subspecies, their population dwindled in the early 2000s. Unfortunately, this is not an anomaly: Other iconic African species like the black rhino, giraffe, elephant and lion are also feeling the pressure to survive.

Wildlife conservation should not be taken lightly because the consequences are catastrophic and often permanent. Complicating matters is that individuals, organizations and government agencies have different ideas of what constitutes "conservation." For some, the term literally means to compassionately conserve wildlife: To protect wild animals from harm and work to ensure their freedom and survival. For others, the concept is twisted to justify the recreational hunting and trophy hunting of endangered and otherwise imperiled species.

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Elephant populations are dwindling. The last thing they need is to be hunted recreationally. (image: Cyndy Sims Parr)

The key is to identify who is truly in favor of the conservation of wildlife, and who is against it.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) recently established International Wildlife Conservation Council (IWCC) sounds like a group that should support true wildlife conservation. When I first learned of this new council, I presumed it would be pro-conservation. After all, "wildlife conservation" is in its name. Yet the council's commitment to wildlife conservation is questionable.

I attended the IWCC's first public meeting on March 16, and the councilmembers repeatedly stated that their goal is to promote wildlife conservation. Dig a little deeper, though, and you'll learn that FWS formed the IWCC to "advise the Secretary of the Interior on the benefits international hunting has on foreign wildlife and habitat conservation, anti-poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking programs, and other ways in which international hunting benefits human populations in these areas." FWS explains that the council "will focus on increased public awareness domestically regarding conservation, wildlife law enforcement, and economic benefits that result from U.S. citizens traveling abroad to hunt."

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A mural of a bison hunt in the room where the International Wildlife Conservation Council meeting was held. (image: Michael Biesecker via Twitter)

This mission was solidified by the IWCC’s member selection: All but one of the councilmembers are confirmed to represent pro-hunting organizations or groups that condone hunting or are hunters themselves, including officers of Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association.

So, the IWCC's idea of "wildlife conservation" is to promote the supposed benefits of hunting foreign wildlife? That's not wildlife conservation at all; it's just killing. And with the councilmembers made up almost entirely of pro-hunting interests, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke can't possibly get balanced advice about how to truly conserve wildlife.

In November, Born Free USA submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to FWS to obtain documents that shine a light on the duties of the council, the guidelines under which it was established and the criteria used to select its members. By law, FWS has 20 working days to produce the requested documents. But those 20 days came and went. We finally heard back from FWS at the end of January, informing us it had determined our request to be "complex," and therefore granted itself an extension until February 20. But February 20 also came and went, and still, not a single document was produced. So on March 14, Born Free USA filed a complaint against FWS.

Had FWS given us the information we requested, as it is required to do by law, the reasons for the formation of the IWCC would have been better known. For all we know, pro-hunting and pro-trophy hunting groups told Secretary Zinke that the public needs to be informed by a government-created council that hunting foreign wildlife, particular to trophy hunting, has conservation benefits.

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Black rhinos are targets of trophy hunting. (image: Afrika Force)

At the IWCC's meeting, I was excited to finally get answers to some of our looming inquiries. The most important question on my mind: How would the council justify its definition of wildlife conservation? I anticipated that IWCC members would discuss the council's strategies and goals, which would help us to understand the reasons for the formation of the IWCC, since FWS refuses to provide us with any information in response to our FOIA request. Would this supposed wildlife conservation body have the nerve to openly endorse trophy hunting? To my dismay, the meeting left me with more questions than answers.

Councilmembers proclaimed the need to act quickly before wildlife trafficking and poaching kills more animals; to help wildlife so that their populations don't drop too low; and to ensure that the main goal of the council will be wildlife conservation. Isn't the stated purpose of this council to promote the hunting of foreign wildlife? Aren't its members mostly, if not all, pro-hunting and possibly pro-trophy hunting interests? Doesn't the council actively target some of the world's most iconic species for thrill kills?

As I sat in the audience, I grew bewildered as to the mission of this council. On the one hand, we have a council comprised of hunters who were selected to encourage trophy hunting. On the other hand, I heard them repeatedly express the importance of conserving wildlife. How, I wondered, could the council reconcile the promotion of trophy hunting with the concept of wildlife conservation?

Then it dawned on me that something interesting was happening. I noticed that the councilmembers never uttered the term "trophy hunting," and not once did they link trophy hunting to wildlife conservation. Instead, throughout the meeting, they proclaimed the need to aid wildlife conservation by putting an end to wildlife trafficking and poaching: illegal practices they were proud to disavow. Could this be a way to seem more wildlife-friendly to the listening public?

To an uninformed person, this sounds like conservation—but that’s a dangerous misunderstanding. By focusing on criticizing illegal activities, the council was able to actively shift the discussion away from trophy hunting.

But they didn't fool me and they shouldn't fool you. With its pro-hunting mission and membership, this is a council that believes that wildlife conservation and trophy hunting are one and the same: That hunting endangered and imperiled species most associated with trophy hunting is a means to conserve them.

So does the IWCC aid wildlife conservation? Absolutely, undoubtedly not. Wildlife conservation is about compassionately protecting species from harm and working to stabilize their numbers so that they can live far into the future. Though time may be running out for the northern white rhino, we can still work to save other populations from the same fate. Perhaps at the next IWCC meeting, there will be substantive discussion of how to conserve species that are in peril from all targets, including—don’t be afraid to say it—trophy hunting.


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