By Sarah Lawson
Feel free to ship your prized elephant head in the cargo hold.
South Africa's largest airline, South African Airways, lifted a ban today that had prohibited the transportation of hunting trophies like the heads or carcasses of elephants, rhinos, and lions, Bloomberg reports.
SAA, which is state-owned, had formerly imposed the ban to much fanfare in April. Fewer than three months later, it lifted it without explanation.
The Professional Hunters' Association of South Africa (PHASA), a nonprofit organization that supports the professional hunting industry and liaises with government entities and NGOs on trophy hunting issues, said in an applauding statement that South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs had stepped into the discussions on the ban since it was put in place in April. Adri Kitshoff, PHASA's chief executive, said the reversal was "in line with the South African government’s policy of 'sustainable utilisation' of its natural resources." With 1,200 members, PHASA says it is the largest association of its kind and claims that hunting and "the trophy hunting industry, in particular, has a significant role to play in conservation in South Africa."
Azzedine Downes, CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, told Fast Company that hunting lobbies like PHASA were responsible for the government crackdown on SAA. The cargo divisions of other airlines, like KLM and Lufthansa, have active bans on hunting trophies, but given trophy hunting's prevalence in southern Africa and SAA's stature as South Africa's largest airline, pressure was "immense" to remove the cargo ban after only three months, he says.
"There is a clear distinction between illegal wildlife products, such as poached rhino horn or ivory, and legitimate hunting trophies. The export of trophies is strictly regulated by both the country of origin, the country of import and, where applicable, Cites (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species)," Kitshoff said in the statement.
But Downes said the benefits of trophy hunting are ambiguous at best and often exaggerated by figures in the industry. "The first reason that they give is that it’s a critical part of conversation in the sense of wildlife management. But the fact of the matter is that trophy hunters don’t want sick and infirm trophies. They want the best of the best, so they’re looking to remove specimens from the wild that (have) a trophy. That’s not how nature works," he says.
The second argument is money—that trophy hunting generates money that is put toward animal conservation. But Downes says that's also not necessarily true: Only 3% to 5% of funds generated by hunting operators tends to make its way back to local communities in Africa, according to research by Economists at Large.
"The argument that trophy hunters are providing is that they provide money to care for them by killing. Let’s not get tangled up in arguments about how to make ivory trade better or rhino trade safer—let’s just move beyond it," Downes says. "If (trophy hunting is) really contributing to the scientific management of herds, and it’s been going on for a century, then why are we in the situation that we are in? Clearly something needs to change."