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U.S. to allow imports of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe, Zambia

WASHINGTON — U.S. authorities will remove restrictions on importing African elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia.

That means Americans will soon be able to hunt the endangered big game, an activity that garnered worldwide attention when a Minnesota dentist took Cecil, perhaps the world’s most famous lion, near a wildlife park in Zimbabwe.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman said the move will allow the two African countries to include U.S. sport hunting as part of their management plans for the elephants and allow them to put “much-needed revenue back into conservation.”

Critics, however, note the restrictions were created by the Obama administration in 2014 because the African elephant population had dropped.

The animals are listed in the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which requires the U.S. government to protect endangered species in other countries.

“We can’t control what happens in foreign countries, but what we can control is a restriction on imports on parts of the animals,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.

The number of elephants in the wild plummeted 30 percent overall between 2007 and 2014, despite large-scale conservation efforts.

In some places, it has dropped more than 75 percent because of ivory poaching.

In 2016, there were just more than 350,000 elephants still alive in the wild, down from millions in the early 20th century.

Pacelle, who opposes the decision, said it means “elephants minding their business are going to be gunned down by rich Americans.”

Safari Club International, a worldwide network of hunters, cheered the announcement.

“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,” SCI president Paul Babaz said in a statement.

But the decision was met with outcry from animal-rights advocates, including Chelsea Clinton, a longtime proponent for elephant conservation.

The daughter of former President Bill Clinton and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton once called elephants her “great passion” in a 2016 Politico profile and, together with her mother, unveiled a $80 million partnership through the Clinton Global Initiative in 2013 to help end the ivory poaching crisis.

“Infuriating. Will increase poaching, make communities more vulnerable & hurt conservation efforts,” she tweeted Thursday, linking to a report from the Humane Society of the United States.

President Donald Trump’s sons Donald Jr. and Eric are big-game hunters.

Photos posted in 2012 by the website Gothamist show Trump Jr. holding an elephant tail. The website said the photos were from a 2011 hunt in Zimbabwe.

Pacelle noted that corruption in the Zimbabwean government was a concern when the U.S. banned trophy imports from the nation in 2014.