The key federal agency that oversees the imports of elephants, giraffes, lions and other hunted threatened and vulnerable species is refusing to release the names of U.S. residents who are receiving the trophies and body parts, a violation of the Freedom of Information Act, FoA’s Wildlife Law Program said in filings.
Earlier this year, FoA filed FOIA requests with the federal Department of the Interior seeking information on the numbers of elephant skins and giraffe parts being imported into the U.S., including the names of the importers.
Just 350,000 elephants remain in Africa. Yet, despite the dwindling population of African elephants, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. is a major importer of elephant parts and products, exceeding other countries. In 2016, the U.S. imported 2,079 whole African elephant skins, up from 275two years before.
In an effort to protect African elephants, FoA has petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to amend ESA to include greater restrictions on the trade of elephant skins and other body parts and it has sought data on the numbers and kinds of skin imports coming into the U.S.
Similarly, African giraffes are also in danger of being wiped out, with just 97,500 remaining in Africa, a drop from 150,000 in 1985. In 2016, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) elevated the threat level of giraffes two categories to “vulnerable to extinction.” Giraffes are already gone from seven countries in Africa, Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Guinea, Malawi, Mauritania, Nigeria and Senegal.
Yet giraffes currently have no protection under U.S. law. And like with elephants, the U.S. is a major importer of giraffe parts and derivatives. Between 2006 and 2016, the U.S. imported 21,402 bone carvings, 3,008 skin pieces and 3, 744 hunting trophies. Who is getting these parts, however, remains under wraps because the federal Department of the Interior is withholding the names of hundreds of the importers.
FoA has appealed the withholding of the names and filed a lawsuit in federal court against DOI when the agency didn’t answer FoA’s appeal in the proper time frame. FoA is also supporting efforts by animal protection groups who’ve requested that FWS list extend ESA protections to giraffes and has sponsoring legislation in two states, New York and Connecticut that would ban the imports of elephant, giraffe, lions, leopards and rhino trophies. New York is the largest importer of trophies through its port.
In 2018, an FoA investigation that included a FOIA request into U.S. trophy hunters revealed that more than half the hunters who received permits to bring back lion parts from Africa donated to the Republicans or were connected to Safari Club International. Included in the list of hunters who received permits was Indiana resident Steven Chancellor, who raised more than $1 million for Republican candidates at a fundraiser at this home in 2016 headlined by Donald Trump. Once he became President, Trump’s administration eased restrictions on U.S. trophy hunters. An earlier investigation by FoA also found that FWS had quietly issued 16 individual permits authorizing the import of sport-hunted elephant trophies from Zimbabwe before announcing to the public in November that it was lifting its ban on hunting of elephants in that country.
“Transparency is critical to our ability to protect these endangered animals and to our democracy. The public deserves to know if the government is granting permits based on scientific information or if improper political influences may be at play,’’ said Jennifer Best, assistant director of FoA’s Wildlife Law Program. “There is no justification for withholding this information.”
The Supreme Court has stated that FOIA establishes a strong presumption in favor of disclosure, and Congress has affirmed these tenants, WLP noted in its appeals. The guiding principal of FOIA is the public’s fundamental right to know.
The law favors disclosure, not secrecy.