Why is the government keeping secrets about the U.S. wildlife trade?

by Fran Silverman

The U.S. is a major importer of elephant skins and giraffe parts at a time when populations of both species are severely declining. But information about who is involved in the wildlife trade is being withheld by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

From 2007 to 2016, the number of whole elephant skins imported to the U.S. jumped from 275 in 2014 to 2,079 in 2016, with values increasing from $24,947 to more than $4.5 million in 2017. Between 2006 and 2016, the U.S. imported 21,402 giraffe bone carvings, 3,008 skin pieces and 3,744 hunting trophies.

These imports are flowing into U.S. ports at a time when the populations of both elephants and giraffes have been declining. Where once there were 12 million elephants in Africa in the early 1900s, there are now less than 400,000, as their body parts have been commodified for skin products and trophy hunts. Skins are used to make handbags, boots, totes, belts, computer cases, gun holders and even sneakers for coveted fashion items.

Giraffes currently have no protection under U.S. law despite the fact that only about 97,500 giraffes remain in Africa, down from 150,000 in 1985.

FoA has been working to protect both these African species (as well lions, leopards, and rhinos) with legislation that would prevent the import of their trophies by hunters who spend thousands of dollars on overseas safaris in the supposed name of conservation. In 2018, FoA’s Wildlife Law Program petitioned FWS to amend the existing regulations and prohibit the import and export of African elephant parts and products (other than ivory for which there is already a near total ban.) Animal advocacy groups have also petitioned FWS to list giraffes as endangered in 2017 and its still under consideration.

As part of FoA’s efforts to protect these species, we wanted to take a closer look into the trade of their parts to point a spotlight on the effects that the commercialization of giraffes and elephants is having on their chances of survival and how FWS is overseeing and regulation the trade. In 2018 we filed Freedom of Information Act requests asking for copies of documents for all importers of elephant skins and parts and information on New York and Connecticut residents who had filed forms to import giraffe parts.

FoA routinely files such requests. In 2018, we looked into trophy hunting permits issued to U.S. residents who killed lions in Zimbabwe and Zambia. The Obama administration had prohibited trophy imports from those countries because of conservation concerns and the vulnerability of the dwindling lion population. But under the Trump administration, FWS quietly started issuing permits to import the trophies. We filed a FOIA and found that the Trump administration had not only had loosened restrictions on lion hunting but was rewarding its donors. Our investigation was picked up by national media and reportedly widely across the nation.

But this time FWS refused to release key information, such as the names of U.S. importers of giraffe and elephant parts and foreign exports, monetary value and quantity of animal parts imported.

Why the secrecy?

In a lawsuit FoA ‘s Wildlife Law Program filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals 10th challenging a district court ruling that allowed FWS to withhold the information, FoA noted that FWS actually requires the publication of the names of individuals who wish to kill endangered species and it “never redacts” the names of importers. Not only does FWS publish that information regularly, it also expressly cautions importers of these animal parts that any information they provide could be released to the public in response to FOIA requests.

“For over a decade, FWS regularly disclosed the very same information at issue here in response to requests under the Freedom of Information Act. Yet FWS has abruptly and without justification changed its policy, now claiming that FOIA obligates FWS to withhold these names because disclosing them would be an unwarranted invasion of privacy,’’ our lawsuit states.

FWS is now claiming that releasing the elephant and giraffe information we most recently requested would be an unwarranted invasion of privacy and the purchasers of the animal products would face harassment. But this flies in the face of its own regulations requiring publication of the information and the behavior of trophy hunters themselves who often like to tout their conquests on social media.

Take Tess Thompson Talley for example. She killed a South African giraffe and posted the pictures online. Or Donald Trump Jr.’s post of him holding an elephant tail during a 2011 hunting trip to Zimbabwe.

FWS goes on to make other spurious arguments as well, claiming that the information can’t be released because the names are part of investigatory records. But standard import forms like 3-177 that we requested are not compiled for investigatory purposes to pursue specific legal action. FWS routinely collects this form for almost any import of wildlife parts and products. As for giraffes, they aren’t even protected under federal laws so there’s simply no way that the information could have been compiled for law enforcement purposes, FoA’s lawsuit points out.

Redacting information on who is involved in the trade of vulnerable, threatened and endangered wildlife runs counter to the public’s right to know, a concept that is the backbone of the Freedom of Information Act.

Transparency is key to shining a probing light on the controversial practice of trophy hunting and commerce in wildlife. The ability for organizations such as FoA, journalists and citizens to review the names of the importers is vital to the public’s understanding of how government is regulating and overseeing this trade. Disclosure of the names would reveal whether FWS is favoring certain categories of people when it grants permits, whether the individuals purchasing these parts are involved in actual conservation efforts and/or are affiliated with groups that may influence FWS’s policies, are illegal wildlife traffickers, have previously been convicted of wildlife crimes and whether FWS’s policies and regulations are effective at protecting these species or regulations needs to be amended through legislation and regulatory changes.

As FoA notes in its lawsuit, “if individuals do not want their names disclosed to the public, they have an easy option: they can refrain from importing the parts of imperiled wildlife.’’

The government’s work in overseeing those who do import wildlife shouldn’t be done in secret.

Communications Director Fran Silverman oversees FoA’s public affairs and publications. Her previous experience includes editor of a national nonprofit consumer advocacy site, staff writer and editor positions at Hearst and The Hartford Courant and contributing writer for The New York Times.