Elephant trophies? Seriously? This is what Washington is spending its time on?

Last week the Trump Administration put plans in place to reverse a ban blocking the importation of elephant trophies back into the U.S. from Zimbabwe and Zambia. The true motive behind the move was cleverly disguised by its proponents as a feel-good story designed to benefit conservation efforts as new data, allegedly provided by Zimbabwean officials, indicated increased hunting would actually help the threatened species.

As someone who spends time behind the scenes supporting projects focused on protecting elephants in East Africa, I can tell you that I have been scratching my head all week wondering what idiot in our government thought this was a good idea in the first place. Who thought that they could actually sneak this one in and the American people would just whistle past it? Well we didn’t.

Not only was the new plan an embarrassment to conservation programs globally and to the people who have worked for decades dedicating their lives to protecting endangered species, but with everything on our plate as Americans, it’s a complete waste of our time as a country that our own officials are even discussing it.

The facts of poaching are very clear: there are more elephants being killed every day in Africa than are being born. If the killing of the species continues at current rates, it won’t be long until we are taking our children to see them in the Smithsonian museum and having to explain why they can no longer go see them alive in their natural habitat.

The truth is that the hunting of elephants for their ivory and tusks destroys ecosystems, disrupts local communities’ way of life, hurts African economies, supports terrorist groups, and is rife with government corruption along the entire illicit smuggling chain. Spend any time in conservations in Kenya and you can literally witness the degradation of certain species for yourself. So why then, when we have finally started to make some strides against poaching and the percentage of illegally killed elephants over recent years, would we now promote the demand and killing of them, reversing everything people have worked so hard to protect.

This plan had nothing to do with the greater good of wildlife conservation. This is about lining the pockets of corrupt governments and the .00001 percent of Americans who even care about traveling to Africa to hunt.

What this new decision sounds like is a bunch of bored, rich guys got together to tell hunting stories and bet each other that they could get a guy in Washington to pass a law for them that helps fill empty space on their walls. This has good old boys club written all over it. What we are seeing is an abuse of power. President Trump should have the head of whoever was behind this new policy.

What surprised me even further was that the Department of the Interior seemed to stand behind the ban reversal based on shoddy research. The unlucky U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official who was given the task of defending the decision publicly stated that “new data” received from Zimbabwe supported reversing the ban, that well-regulated sport hunting as part of “sound management” conservation program can benefit certain species.

Zimbabwe? Since when do we listen to Zimbabwe? A country that doesn’t even have its own currency any longer because of mismanagement and rampant corruption. A country whose government is so corrupt and inept, that there is literally a coup taking place there as we speak. Sound management and Zimbabwe shouldn’t even be in the same sentence. We’ve decided to listen to a government whose corrupt officials’ likely #1 goal is to find out how to get money from affluent people in the U.S.

Let me be clear, this is not about bashing hunting. I am no stranger to the world myself. I grew up hunting in Texas. I spent most of my career in U.S. Army Special Ops community – you should have seen the guns I had access to. At one point in my career you could even argue that I hunted and killed people for a living. But there is a significant difference between hunting as a legal practice in the U.S. and the hunting of designated endangered species in countries that have proven track records of corrupt conservation practices. So when someone tells me that promoting the hunting of endangered species is a great way to protect them and also put money back into the cause, I have a hard time not laughing at their complete ignorance of it all.

The more I look at this, this plan had nothing to do with the greater good of wildlife conservation, endangered species, or the Zimbabwean people at all. This is about lining the pockets of corrupt governments and the .00001 percent of Americans who even care about traveling to Africa to hunt. It’s about the greed of man. I mean really, how many people can even afford to go hunting in Zimbabwe? A trip over there for these hunting excursions alone costs more than the average American makes in a year. And that’s not even bringing in the cost of shipping an elephant trophy brought back to the U.S. Why do we suddenly care right now about the tiny percentage of the population who can afford to travel overseas to hunt and their selfish interests in bringing home fresh kills to be displayed? 

But the thing that really angers me the most about all this is the fact that, with all of the issues facing Americans today, elephant trophies from Africa is even a topic of conversation for our government in the first place. Why, with such a messed up political climate in our country, are we pouring our government agencies’ and lawmakers’ time into changing laws that effect Africa. It shouldn’t even be a discussion point at all for lawmakers. We should be focused on things like tax reform, education, and national defense. The U.S. even blinking an eye at this, having it going all the way up to the presidential level for comment, is a waste of our time. If the head of the Department of the Interior is more focused on getting a law approved for hunting elephants overseas instead of dedicating time to issues right here in our own country, then that person does not belong in office.

The president did the right thing over the weekend by putting a hold on the decision and taking the time to actually review the facts personally. Let’s hope that’s an indicator the issue will be put to rest soon once and for all. In the meantime, I’ll be heading back out the conservations in a few weeks to support those in the field who aren’t just talking about these issues, but are actually doing something. If you want to see it for yourself and give back to them, join me. There are many groups focused on anti-poaching that can use your help.

Brett Velicovich is a U.S. Army veteran and former military intelligence analyst with 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta. His brand-new memoir is Drone Warrior.