But a provision in the act still allows the U.S. government to give permits to hunters who want to import the heads or tusks of elephants if there is evidence that hunting actually benefits conservation for the animal.
“There hasn’t been an announcement that’s been finalized on this front,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters when asked about the reported policy shift on Thursday. “Until that’s done I wouldn’t consider anything final.”
In 2014, former president Barack Obama put through a rule that banned hunters from bringing the trophy heads of elephants they’d killed in Zimbabwe and Zambia.
The Obama administration said the two countries’ management of legal hunting did not “enhance the survival of the African elephant in the wild.”
WATCH: African elephant population declines 30% in 7 years
Zimbabwe’s elephant population has declined six per cent since 2001, with increased incidents of poaching in areas where trophy hunting is permitted.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it’s now lifting the ban and told Global News it “determined that the hunting and management programs for African elephants in Zimbabwe and Zambia will enhance the survival of the species in the wild.”
“Legal, well-regulated sport hunting as part of a sound management program can benefit certain species by providing incentives to local communities to conserve those species and by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation,” a spokesperson said.
It did not specify what had changed since the ban was imposed.
The reversal will apply to elephants hunted in Zimbabwe from Jan. 21, 2016 to Dec. 31, 2018, and to elephants hunted in Zambia in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
Among those who could benefit from the rule change are U.S. President Donald Trump’s sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, who are known big-game hunters.
In 2012, the Donald Trump Jr. sparked a wave of controversy after a picture surfaced showing him holding the severed tail of an African elephant in Zimbabwe.
Animal rights groups criticize move
Animal rights groups were quick to criticize the lift on the ban.
“Let’s be clear: elephants are on the list of threatened species; the global community has rallied to stem the ivory trade; and now, the U.S. government is giving American trophy hunters the green light to kill them,” Wayne Pacelle, the CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, wrote in a statement posted on his blog.
“What kind of message does it send to say to the world that poor Africans who are struggling to survive cannot kill elephants in order to use or sell their parts to make a living, but that it’s just fine for rich Americans to slay the beasts for their tusks to keep as trophies?” he added.
WATCH: Kenya burns 105 tons of Ivory to deter poaching
Safari Club says hunting ‘beneficial’ to wildlife
Safari Club International president Paul Babaz praised the move.
“These positive findings for Zimbabwe and Zambia demonstrate that the Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes that hunting is beneficial to wildlife and that these range countries know how to manage their elephant populations,” he said in a statement.
“We appreciate the efforts of the Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior to remove barriers to sustainable use conservation for African wildlife,” Babaz added.