After Cecil the lion was killed, should Congress make it harder to import corpses or body parts of endangered animals as trophies?
Global controversy erupted in July 2015 when a Minnesota dentist vacationed in Zimbabwe and paid $54,000 to hunt and kill a beloved lion named Cecil from an endangered subspecies of lion.
In response, President Obama’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added two lion subspecies to the Endangered Species Act. That new classification made it more difficult for Americans to import dead lions or their body parts — though still not impossible. Importation is still legal from a country that uses the hunt fees towards animal conservation.
Meanwhile, the Trump Administration has moved in the opposite direction. In March 2018, the Fish and Wildlife Service under new administration lifted a ban on importing elephant trophies hunted from Africa.
What the bill does
The CECIL Act was introduced by the new head of the House Natural Resources Committee to strengthen animal protections from trophy hunting.
Specifically, the bill’s text requires a dead animal only be imported if the country where the animal was killed “demonstrates… that any benefits of trophy hunting, including revenue from such taking, materially, directly and substantially benefits the conservation of that species.”
That determination would be made by either the Secretary of Commerce of Secretary of Commerce.
It would also ban importation of animals proposed for the endangered species list, prior to their potential inclusion, since the process from proposal to inclusion can take several years.
The bill’s full name is the Conserving Ecosystems by Ceasing the Importation of Large Animal Trophies Act — although that would seem to create the acronym CECILAT.
It was introduced in the House on April 10 as bill number H.R. 2245, by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ3).
What supporters say
Supporters argue the bill would protect the most vulnerable animals, and is in keeping with the widespread public outcry over such stories as Cecil.
“This sort of incident is why we have endangered species laws and why Republicans need to start taking their enforcement seriously,” Rep. Grijalva said in a 2015 press release shortly after the killing of Cecil the lion. “Instead of having the ear of a responsive congressional majority, Americans who think lions might still be worthy of protection unfortunately have to take to Yelp and find a local chat site to register their outrage.”
“Republicans in Washington who don’t believe polar bears, elephants, lions, rhinoceros or other at-risk species are important to their constituents only need to look at the response to this story,” Rep. Grijalva continued. “Their lack of interest shouldn’t be mistaken for the wishes of the people they represent. This country passionately supports endangered species conservation, and it deserves a Congress that feels the same.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that the bill loosens the definition of “protected species” to an arguably illegal level, and could actually counterintuitively harm the animals it’s trying to protect.
“Imposing burdensome Endangered Species Act prohibitions on animals even proposed for ESA listing would give them the same status as threatened and endangered species, but without the review of scientific evidence and a demonstrated need for protection actually presented,” the Sportsmen’s Alliance wrote in a statement opposing the bill.
“If passed, hunting of the proposed species would severely diminish, and years of pointless studies and red-tape lawsuits would likely ensue,” the Alliance continued. “Note that the bill doesn’t define ‘proposed,’ so activists will argue that any species they ‘propose’ for listing in a petition cannot be imported.”
They also contend that the bill might actually be worse for the continued survival of such endangered animals, not better.
“This type of end-run around the existing Fish and Wildlife Service’s science-based management decisions is not only dangerous, but could actually cause further harm to the species they claim to want to protect due to a loss of revenue from American hunters.”
Odds of passage
Two previous versions introduced by Rep. Grijalva in 2015 and in 2018 both failed to receive a vote. The 2015 version received 46 cosponsors, all Democrats. The 2018 version received a notably smaller 24 cosponsors, also all Democrats.
The current version has so far attracted only nine cosponsors, also all Democrats — although it’s been out for less than a month.
On the one hand, this could potentially receive a vote now that Democrats control the House. On the other hand, the cause — and the news story of Cecil the lion — are attracting much less attention than circa 2015, which may explain the consistent drop in cosponsorship.
It awaits a possible vote in either the House Foreign Affairs or House Natural Resources Committees.