Washington – A new US advisory board created to help rewrite federal rules for importing the heads and hides of African elephants, lions and rhinos is stacked with trophy hunters, including some members with direct ties to US President Donald Trump and his family.
A review by The Associated Press of the backgrounds and social media posts of the 16 board members appointed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke indicates they will agree with his position that the best way to protect critically threatened or endangered species is by encouraging wealthy Americans to shoot some of them.
One appointee co-owns a private New York hunting preserve with Trump's adult sons. The oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., drew the ire of animal rights activists after a 2011 photo emerged of him holding a bloody knife and the severed tail of an elephant he killed in Zimbabwe.
The first meeting of the International Wildlife Conservation Council was scheduled for Friday.
Trump has decried big-game hunting as a "horror show" in tweets. But under Zinke, a former Montana congressman who is an avid hunter, the Fish and Wildlife Service has quietly moved to reverse Obama-era restrictions on bringing trophies from African lions and elephants into the United States.
A licenced two-week African hunting safari can cost more than $50 000 per person, not including airfare, according to advertised rates. Advocates say money helps support habitat conservation and anti-poaching efforts in some of the world's poorest nations, and provides employment for local guides and porters.
In a statement last year, Zinke said, "This council will provide important insight into the ways that American sportsmen and women benefit international conservation from boosting economies and creating hundreds of jobs to enhancing wildlife conservation."
But environmentalists and animal welfare advocates say tourists taking photos generate more economic benefit, and hunters typically target the biggest and strongest animals, weakening already vulnerable populations.
There's little indication dissenting perspectives will be represented on the Trump administration's conservation council. Appointees include celebrity hunting guides, representatives from rifle and bow manufacturers, and wealthy sportsmen and women who boast of bagging the coveted "Big Five" – elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and Cape buffalo.
Legally imported trophy kills
Most are high-profile members of Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association, groups that have sued the Fish and Wildlife Service to expand the list of countries from which trophy kills can be legally imported.
They include the Safari Club's president, Paul Babaz, a Morgan Stanley investment adviser from Atlanta, and Erica Rhoad, a lobbyist and former GOP congressional staffer who is the NRA's director of hunting policy. Bill Brewster is a retired Oklahoma congressman and lobbyist who served on the boards of the Safari Club and the NRA.
In a letter this week, a coalition of more than 20 environmental and animal welfare groups objected that the one-sided makeup of the council could violate the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires government boards to be balanced in terms of points of view and not improperly influenced by special interests.
Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift said the council has members "that represent all areas of conservation and varying opinions".
Among Zinke's appointees is Steven Chancellor, a longtime Republican fundraiser and chairperson of American Patriot Group, an Indiana-based conglomerate that supplies Meals Ready to Eat to the US military.
According to Safari Club member hunting records obtained in 2015 by the Humane Society, Chancellor has logged nearly 500 kills – including at least 18 lions, 13 leopards, six elephants and two rhinos.
In early 2016, records show Chancellor filed for a federal permit to bring home the skin, skull teeth and claws from another male lion he intended to kill that year in Zimbabwe, which at the time was subject to an import ban imposed by the Obama administration.
Later that same year, Chancellor hosted a private fundraiser for then-candidate Trump and Mike Pence at his Evansville, Indiana, mansion, where the large security gates feature a pair of gilded lions.
Appointees also include professional hunters.
Peter Horn is an ex-vice president of the Safari Club International Conservation Fund and a vice president for high-end gun-maker Beretta. Horn wrote in his 2014 memoir that he co-owns a hunting property in upstate New York with Trump Jr. that has a 457m range "put together" by Eric Trump.
The AP reported last month that the Trump sons were behind a limited-liability company that purchased a 0.7km2 private hunting range in the bucolic Hudson Valley in 2013, complete with a wooden tower from which owners and their guests shoot at exploding targets.
Horn did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Trump Jr. also is friendly with another member of the advisory council – hunting guide and TV show personality Keith Mark. He helped organise Sportsmen for Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign and recently posted photos on his Twitter page of himself with Trump Jr. and Zinke, standing before an array of mounted big-horn sheep and a bear.
"I see the world from a hunting lifestyle," Mark told the AP, adding that he has no preconceived agenda for his service on the conservation council. "It's the most pure form of hands-on conservation that there is. I will approach all decision-making with my background."
- FOLLOW News24 on Twitter