Friends of Animals filed suit Thursday against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its policy change that allows trophy hunting of elephants from Zimbabwe. The policy flip issued March 1, which allows for permits on a case-by-case basis, overturns a previous ban in place since 2014 on sport-killing of the threatened pachyderms.

The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, a wildlife watchdog group, joined FoA in the lawsuit for which Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association are also named.

Zimbabwe’s overall elephant population has declined 18 percent between 2007-2013, and in some parts of the country by 74 percent. Recent scientific reports suggest elephants, which once numbered between 3-5 million, are in danger of extinction within a few decades.

“This latest decision essentially allows Americans to bring back the remains of threatened African elephants who they killed for ‘sport’ behind closed doors,’’ said Michael Harris, director of FoA’s Wildlife Law Program. “The decision ignores the glaring fact that killing threatened African elephants does nothing to promote the conservation of the species. It also cuts interested organizations, such as Friends of Animals, and other legitimate conservationists out of the process. We believe this decision violates laws designed to promote reasoned decisions and transparency in our government, as well as laws aimed at protecting threatened and endangered species from extinction.”

Before publicly announcing the switch in policy, FWS in 2017 quietly issued 16 permits to U.S. residents authorizing the importation of elephant parts from Zimbabwe. FoA has sued FWS over its failure to release information regarding the 16 permits it issued between January and November 2017, alleging it has violated Freedom of Information laws. FoA has also submitted comments calling into question Zinke’s newly empaneled International Wildlife Conservation Council, which is comprised of hunters and members of the gun industry and has been tasked with advising the DOI on the benefits of international hunting and removing barriers to the importation of trophy- hunted animals

FoA’s lawsuit notes that the U.S. has played a significant role in the decline of the species. An estimated 114,000 elephants have been lost between 2007-2014, according to the Great Elephant Census. Population declines are attributable to habitat destruction, illegal poaching, and legal sport hunting.

“While it is something most Americans would like to ignore, truth be told, the United States is one of the largest contributors to the demise of wild African elephants over the past century,” the lawsuit states.

The U.S. is home to more ivory and ivory-products than any other nation outside of China, much of which was legally taken before elephants were placed on the list of endangered and threatened species. A good deal of the ivory was illegally poached. In 2016, the U.S. enacted a near-total ban on the commercial trade of African elephant ivory. But the ban still allows hunters to each import two ivory trophies per year.

And while the Endangered Species Act prohibits the importation of sport-hunted African elephants, FWS can make a specific determination that the killing of the animals for trophies will enhance the survival of the species. The U.S. is the leading importer of African elephant remains from trophy hunting. The hunters spin the slaughter into the notion that they are actually helping preserve elephants by pumping money into local economies and protecting the elephants from being illegally poached. But recent studies show the opposite.

“As evidences by several recent predictions of the demise of many African animals by the end of the century, hunting which has been lawful in many African countries for decades has in fact utterly failed to protect the overall viability of these amazing animals,’’ FoA said in its lawsuit.

Last year, a federal judge upheld the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2014 decision to ban imports of sport-hunted African elephant trophies from Zimbabwe that was issued because the country had inadequate conservation procedures and policies, striking down a challenge brought by the Safari Club and the NRA. FoA together with the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force had intervened in that case to help defend FWS 2014 ban. (In December 2017, a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals completely vindicated the need to ban American sport hunters from killing Zimbabwe’s dwindling elephant population. However, it also found that in issuing the ban in 2014, FWS failed to provide sufficient opportunity for public participation.)

In recent months, Zimbabwe has undergone further political instability and its former first lady, Grace Mugabe is under investigation for alleged involvement in an ivory smuggling ring.

FWS’s reversal of the Zimbabwe ban and the withdrawal of findings in several other countries including Tanzania, South Africa and Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Tanzania, imperils the very survival of the species and violates U.S. laws, FoA alleges in its lawsuit.

In reversing the ban and allowing permits on a case-by-case basis, FWS did not solicit comments from the public or interested parties before issuing its decision, concerns about Zimbabwe’s ability to enforce its management plan remain, and poaching and corruption in the country and its declining elephant population have not been addressed, according to FoA.

“FWS reversed its policy on the importation of sport-hunted elephant parts with no rational explanation,’’ the lawsuit states.

Elephants, the largest land animal on earth, are smart and sentient beings who form strong permanent bonds with families and their herds. Their capacity for grief rivals our own. A recent article in Scientific American said scientists now have evidence that elephants are just as brilliant as they are big.

“For decades Friends of Animals has been educating the public and government officials about the perils of hunting elephants, extremely intelligent and social beings at risk of going extinct,’’ said Harris. “We will not stop our efforts.”