The Trump administration confirmed Thursday it lifted a ban that had prohibited hunters from importing trophies of elephants killed in two African nations, reversing a 2014 rule put in place by the Obama White House.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told NBC News that the agency had "determined that the hunting and management programs for African elephants in Zimbabwe and Zambia will enhance the survival of the species in the wild."
"Legal, well-regulated sport hunting as part of a sound management program can benefit certain species by providing incentives to local communities to conserve those species and by putting much-needed revenue back into conservation," the spokesperson said.
The reversal will apply to elephants hunted in Zimbabwe from Jan. 21, 2016 to Dec. 31, 2018 and to elephants hunted in Zambia in 2016, 2017 and 2018 "for applications that meet all other applicable permitting requirements," the agency spokesperson said.
The move overturns a 2014 rule implemented by former President Barack Obama that banned hunters from bringing the trophy heads of elephants they'd killed in Zimbabwe and Zambia back to the U.S.
The African Bush Elephant is currently listed as endangered, under the Endangered Species Act, but a provision in the law allows for the import of trophies if it can be proved that hunting the animals contributes to conservation efforts.
The statement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cited conservation "enhancement findings" in reaching its decision but did not elaborate on what those findings were.
The decision by the agency was first reported Wednesday by ABC News.
Zimbabwe and Zambia issue annual permits allowing foreign hunters to kill animals, like elephants, buffalo and lions, saying the practice allows the nations to raise money for conservation. The Obama White House, however, introduced the initial ban on trophy imports in 2014 after the population of the African elephants fell.
Animal rights groups blasted the Trump administration's move.
"Let's be clear: elephants are on the list of threatened species; the global community has rallied to stem the ivory trade; and now, the U.S. government is giving American trophy hunters the green light to kill them," Wayne Pacelle, the CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, wrote in a statement posted on his blog.
"What kind of message does it send to say to the world that poor Africans who are struggling to survive cannot kill elephants in order to use or sell their parts to make a living, but that it's just fine for rich Americans to slay the beasts for their tusks to keep as trophies?" he added.
Among those who could benefit from the rule change are President Donald Trump's adult sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, who are known big game hunters. Photographs of the pair surfaced in 2012 showing the two men posing with the carcasses of several dead animals from a hunting trip they'd taken a year earlier in Zimbabwe.