“Big 5” Trophy Importation Bans


Certain states have sought to restrict the importation of legally harvested game animals, particularly the African “Big 5”. These five species alone generate most of the funding for wildlife authorities in African range nations. Discouraging hunters from importing trophies is intended to discourage them from hunting in Africa at all, thus depriving African wildlife authorities and communities of essential income.


In recent years, several states have sought to restrict the importation of legally harvested game animals, particularly the African “Big 5” species. The recently proposed legislation defines the “Big 5” as the African elephant, Cape buffalo, African lion, white and black rhinoceros, and African leopard. These African species are typically considered to be the most difficult and dangerous game species to pursue (along with the hippopotamus and Nile crocodile), and for that reason, are highly valued by African safari hunters. These five species alone generate most of the funding for wildlife authorities in African range nations.

Revenue generated by licensed, regulated safari hunting is the single most important source of funding for conservation and anti-poaching efforts in Africa. In many Southern and Eastern African countries, revenues generated from legal hunting are the primary source of management, conservation, and anti-poaching funds for national wildlife authorities. These hunting programs have been designed by wildlife management experts to allow a limited, sustainable take, and to generate funds for conservation, anti-poaching efforts, and community incentives. This system has helped recover or maintain “Big 5” populations in Southern and Eastern Africa.

The legal harvest of Cecil the Lion in 2015 was weaponized by animal rights groups opposed to hunting to draw negative national attention to so-called “trophy hunting.” False representations and animal rights activism often result in legislative efforts that seek to restrict hunters’ abilities to import “Big 5” species. These misguided pieces of legislation will not only affect hunters within their states but will also affect all legally hunted and harvested animals that travel through such states when returning from Africa.

Preventing hunters from importing harvested animals is intended to discourage them from hunting in Africa at all, thus depriving African wildlife authorities and communities of essential income. Without the money generated by hunters, governments and outfitters will lack the funds needed to hire and equip anti-poaching patrols.[5] Furthermore, without the financial and game meat contributions from legal hunting, local communities have little incentive to protect the dangerous game, which is otherwise viewed as a nuisance or threat.[6] Laws banning the importation of “Big 5” species undermine species conservation, adversely affect sportsmen and women in the U.S., and eliminate benefits for many African people living in the poorest and more remote areas. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issues “enhancement” import permits for these species because of the benefits generated; the denial deprives the species of proven “enhancement.”

Points of Interest

  • Similar to the American System of Conservation Funding, conservation efforts in Africa are dependent upon revenue generated by hunters.
  • Prohibiting the importation of African species will harm the conservation of these species by reducing the effectiveness of government agencies tasked with protecting them.
  • After the legalization of white rhinoceros hunting, the population increased in South Africa from 1,800 (in 1968) to around 20,000 (2015). In that same time period, only 0.34% of the total population was harvested. Black rhino populations have likewise increased in South Africa and Namibia as a result of the legalization of limited hunting, from around 2,520 (in 2004) to around 3,500 (2015), of which only 0.05% were hunted. Namibia has recently moved white rhinos from Appendix I to Appendix II which relates to the sale of live animals which must be kept within the natural and historic range of southern and northern subspecies of white rhinos in Africa.
  • Some critics have suggested that photo tourism can replace licensed, regulated hunting as a source of revenue for conservation, anti-poaching efforts, and community benefits. Photo tourism requires high-capital infrastructure such as hotels, a density of species, and a level of political stability often absent in places where licensed, regulated hunting currently sustains conservation efforts. Additionally, a study into hunting-related tourism in Eastern and Southern Africa reflects that 54% of hunters also participated in photo-safaris and nature tours.
  • In 2013, hunters contributed at least $7.7 million to Namibia’s economy alone. Many community conservancies, including 90% of those in Zimbabwe and 50% in Namibia, are sustained by trophy hunting.
  • Licensed, regulated hunting-supported community conservancies have helped to boost Namibia’s elephant population from 7,500 to over 20,000 between 1995 and 2013.
  • From 1989 to 2001, the Community Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources Association, which works with local communities in Zimbabwe to create revenue from the responsible management of wildlife, generated over $20 million for communities, 89% of which came from hunting.
  • In 2016, New Jersey became the first state to pass legislation (SB 977 and SB 978) specifically targeting lawfully harvested hunting “trophies” and banning the importation and possession of several “Big 5” species by residents of New Jersey.
    • On July 8, 2016, Conservation Force and several partners filed a lawsuit to enjoin the recently passed legislation, arguing that the new ban is preempted by Section 6(f) of the Endangered Species Act. Although they opposed the suit, the defendants conceded that the legislation could not be enforced against federally authorized or permitted imports.
  • In California, CSF joined alongside 12 other conservation organizations in issuing a sign-on letter of opposition to SB 1175 – legislation that would prohibit the possession of parts or products of several “Big 5” species, as well as giraffes, Jentink’s duikers, plains and mountain zebras, hippopotamuses, and striped hyenas.
  • In early 2020, legislation introduced in Connecticut (HB 5104) and New York (SB 4325) sought to ban the importation, transportation, and possession of certain African species, including the “Big 5.” CSF worked with 18 in-state and national conservation organizations and businesses towards fighting HB 5104, which subsequently failed to pass.
  • In 2021, Connecticut’s perennial “Big Six African Species” import ban (SB 925) was signed into law, but not before it received a favorable floor amendment that created a carveout for when the possession is “expressly authorized by any federal law or permit,” which includes hunting.
  • In June 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision to reject a challenge to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s removal of “blanket enhancement and non-detriment ‘findings’” regarding the importation of certain “Big 5” species harvested in foreign nations.
  • In 2022, Maryland enacted two African species import bans that mirrored the 2021 example in Connecticut by making exceptions for activity authorized under state and federal laws.
  • Section 439 in the Fiscal Year 2023 Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act poses to completely ban the import of legally hunted trophies from Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
  • A UK bill attempting to pass a ban on the import of hunting trophies, passed the House of Commons March 17, 2023, and is in the process of moving through the House of Lords as of May 17, 2023.
  • In 2023, CSF joined alongside in-state partners, such as the New York Sportsmen’s Advisory Council, members of the New York Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus, and national partners in opposing S. 3302, a “Big 5” ban.

Moving Forward

Bans on the importation of “Big 5” species from Africa are as misleading as they are ineffective. Legislators should consider that, although proponents claim these bans are meant to protect African game species, in practice they deprive African nations of the resources needed to mount effective anti-poaching and conservation efforts that are primarily funded by the harvest of a small number of animals. These bans also deprive rural communities of meat and necessary infrastructure development. African range state governments oppose these bans, as do leading conservation authorities such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

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