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Adventures in the Endangered Skin Trade

This is an excerpt from JEFFREY ST. CLAIR’s new environmental history, Born Under a Bad Sky, now available from AK Press / CounterPunch Books.

All through the Reagan-Bush years, greens thundered their indignation at the Republicans’ indifference to endangered species (other than beleaguered executives looking for a federal bail-out or for an indictment to be quashed). Nothing roused more passion than the slaughter of the world’s few remaining elephants, leopards, rhinos and kindred species dear to the big game hunters’ hearts.

And indeed both Reagan and Bush did thwart efforts to strengthen international protection for rare wildlife species. With the return to power of the Democrats in 1993, many environmentalists looked to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to end the international trade in exotic animal trophies. By the end of 1993, deeds—as so often was the case in Clintontime—turned out to differ markedly from the promises.

A range of regulations govern big game hunting and the taking of trophies. These include the US Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild fauna and Flora.

In theory, the Endangered Species Act allows only for import of listed species for scientific research or enhancement/survival of species. Under the threat of lawsuits from green groups, both Reagan and Bush more or less stuck to the letter of the law, with the corpses of such rare species being admitted primarily on the grounds (dubious or not) of scientific research. The relevant agency here is the Fish and Wildlife Service in the Interior Department. Its officials decide which listed species may be imported and whether these species are from approved countries. Between 1981 and 1992—the twelve years of Republican tenure of the White House—an average of 2,000 trophy animals belonging to species listed under the International Convention were imported each year.

With the arrival of the Democrats in 1993 came a new philosophy based on inane neo-liberal dogma. Theory here took the form of our old friend, the cash carrot. The idea has been that if the Fish and Wildlife Service charges hefty permit fees for the hunting of these species, it will provide a financial incentive to preserve their habitat. Some of the money is remitted to the relevant countries, which are meant to remit the money to their environmental bureaucracies, which in turn, crack down on poachers and protect existing stocks.

All of this twaddle betrays staggering ignorance of Third World conditions, where corruption means that the money is often immediately stolen, and where the governments themselves are broke. Mozambique, which has the famous Maputo Elephant Reserve, has been forced to lease the 3-million-acre eco-system to James Blanchard, the right-wing financier from Louisiana, who proposes to transform the preserve into a themed hunting park. Blanchard once financed RENAMO, the mercenary guerrilla force backed by the CIA and South Africa, which as part of its destruction of Mozambique in the 1980s, killed off 80 percent of the elephant population.

In the first year of Bruce Babbitt’s supervision, imports of exotic species shot up from an average of 2,000 during the Reagan-Bush years to 17,953. The following year the number rose again, to 21,000. In 1992, Bush’s last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service authorized the importation of 400 African elephant and leopard trophies. In 1994, the Clinton administration allowed 1,200 trophy imports of these two species.

Trophy hunting is a multi-billion dollar industry, where large white-owned safari outfits charge rich white people thousands of dollars to hunt rare wildlife in Africa. A typical trophy-hunting safari in Tanzania, for example, costs between $40,000 and $60,000. Little, if any, of this money stays in Tanzania. Most of it goes to the outfitters, which are often owned by American, European, or South African companies. For example, the Gellini outfitting company of Italy promises its clients “exclusive camps near the favorite hunting areas of Ernest Hemingway, led by first class professional hunters. Our luxury camps feature the best Italian cuisine served by waiters dressed in crisp whites, carrying fresh drinks.” According to one survey, more than 60 percent of the clients of American safari outfitters are millionaires.

The typical safari hunt is neither exhausting nor dangerous. Most African elephants are shot from trucks near the borders of national parks. The favored method of hunting leopards and lions is to shoot them from blinds at night, as the animals are attracted to bait (usually zebra or impala) hung from trees. Bright spotlights are flashed on the cats to freeze them before the hunter makes the kill.

Many of the trophy imports into the United States come from South Africa, where endangered species, such as African lion, bontebok, and elephants are slaughtered on large privately-owned game ranches, some of which are more than a half million acres in size. Many of the rare animals offered for hunting in these places are trapped from the wild and then transported to enclosures in the game reserves. The Kido Game Ranch in South Africa advertises the opportunity to kill scimitar-horned oryx ($4,500), letchwe Kafue ($1,600), addax ($4,700), and Pere David deer ($1,650)—not including taxidermy and gratuity.

The taxidermy costs are almost as expensive as the hunting permits themselves. A life-sized leopard mount costs nearly $2,500, the crafting of a zebra skin runs $1,500, a whole baboon costs $2,000, and the tab for a shoulder mounting of white rhino is about $4,000. Even animal novelties are not cheap. The stuffed penis of a cape buffalo (called a “pizzle cane”) costs $225, an elephant footstool sells for $600, a map of Africa on an elephant ear goes for $925, a lion scrotum pouch costs $150, while a warthog skin beer mug can be made for $125.

A significant player in this story is Safari Club International, at whose annual convention in 1994 Babbitt was a speaker. These tour operators naturally relish the possibility of sharply raising the number of animals they can legally kill and import. Much of the recent increase in trophy hunting of threatened and endangered species can be attributed to Safari Club trophy competitions, where gold and diamond awards are presented to those hunters who have killed the greatest number of listed species. The 1995 winner was Dr. Gerald Wamock, MD, a radiologist from Portland, Oregon, who has bragged of killing 278 different species. During his acceptance speech, Dr. Wamock said he is now “going back to kill the same species with a muzzle loader.”

Some of the Safari Club’s high profile clients include General Chuck Yeagar, actor Steven Seagal, Rep. Billy Tauzin, Rep. Richard Pombo, Dan Quayle, General Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, and the country singer Glen Campbell. The Safari Club is a powerful force in Washington, where its interests are advanced by lobbyist Ron Marlenee, the former congressman from Montana known for his extreme anti-environmental positions. The Club’s political action committee doles out nearly a quarter of a million dollars a year. Its top recipient is the wild man from Alaska, Don Young who raked in more than $14,000 over the past two years. Young is working sedulously to forge new loopholes in the Endangered Species Act that will allow increased importation of trophy hunted endangered species.

In his speech before the Safari Club, Babbitt spoke favorably of the idea of auctioning exotic hunting permits to the highest bidder, saying “these auctions promise much needed currency benefits to argali habitat [the argali are endangered sheep in Khirgistan] and enlist area residents in on-the-ground effort to conserve the species.”

Only Babbitt could babble such imbecilities with a hopeful countenance.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is just out from AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

 

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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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