#ShockWildlifeTruths: US words and deeds on Africa's wildlife heritage 'sending wrong message'

Nairobi National Park - On the outskirts of a sprawling reserve of Kenyan grasslands where endangered animals roam wild, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lavished praise on an American-funded forensics lab that tracks down elephant-poachers for prosecution, and urged aggressive action in Africa on conservation.

Yet earlier this month, the Trump administration quietly lifted the US ban on importing African elephant trophies, to the dismay of environmental groups who said it sends precisely the wrong message.

US words and deeds are colliding as Tillerson travels across Africa. On trade policy, HIV/AIDS and humanitarian aid, the United States at times seems at odds with itself, muddying efforts to show it wants the continent to flourish and is here to help.

SEE: Unbanning US trophy imports: Trump jams a spanner in the works

In the case of the elephants, conservationists appeared to have a powerful ally in President Donald Trump, who intervened personally last year to stop the US Fish and Wildlife Service from lifting the Obama-era ban on tusks imported from Zambia and Zimbabwe. Trump took to Twitter to call the practice a "horror show."

At the forensics lab at Nairobi National Park, the only such lab in east and central Africa, Tillerson agreed Sunday when famed conservationist Richard Leakey warned that the "huge interest" in wildlife products such as elephant and rhinoceros parts was fuelling the international trafficking trade.

"That's really the key, is to shut it all down," Tillerson said.

But three months after Trump's move to keep the ban in place, his administration reversed course again, saying elephant trophies could be imported on a "case-by-case basis." The US agency said it chose that course of action to comply with a court ruling that said the Obama administration failed to follow proper procedure in enacting the original ban.

In Kenya, where the elephant population has plummeted to roughly one-fifth of what it was in the 1970s, the new Trump policy fell flat.

ALSO SEE: Dear Donald Trump. A letter from the Southern bottom of our 'shithole'

"The whole world is against it," said Paula Kahumbu, an elephant expert and CEO of Wildlife Direct, a leading Kenyan environmental group. She said past US support for banning the ivory trade has pushed China and other nations to act as well. "To then say, 'Oh, but we have a special case for some of our people, they should be allowed to have ivory,' it totally undermines the US leadership role."

American leadership has been repeatedly questioned since Trump took office in January 2017 as Washington pulls back from past commitments to NATO, to the United Nations and to aid programs that form the core of US "soft power" diplomacy.

Visiting the African Union headquarters in Ethiopia earlier in his trip, Tillerson urged officials not to go ahead with a plan to impose a 0.2% tariff on imports. The goal is to help the AU become financially self-sufficient, but the US is concerned the plan runs afoul of the World Trade Organisation, thus keeping US companies out of the African market.

The timing for Tillerson's push was inauspicious: Trump is in the midst of going ahead with steep trade penalties on aluminium and steel imported to the US.

___

Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP

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