WASHINGTON >> Maybe it was the memory of a long-ago childhood visit to the zoo. Maybe it was a sense of loyalty to the symbol of his political party.
But President Donald Trump’s surprise intervention to try to save the elephants of Zimbabwe has drawn praise from across the political spectrum — and the question of why he did it has now become the, well, pachyderm in the room.
In what may be one of the most curious moments of his first year in office, Trump put a sudden halt to a new federal government ruling that would have allowed hunters to bring “trophy” elephants killed in Zimbabwe into the U.S., calling big-game hunting a “horror show” that he did not believe helped conservation.
“There’s a lot of shock that this president and this administration would roll back a decision on trophy hunting like this,” said Tanya Sanerib, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which fights to protect species threatened with extinction. “But there’s something about elephants that just crosses party lines. They get to people.”
Aides said it was no more complicated than that. The president likes elephants, they said. He did not know about his administration’s decision to lift the trophy ban until learning it from the news media and was annoyed to be criticized for a move he had no part in. So he made his displeasure known in the way he has so many other times this year, through his Twitter feed.
As it happened, his decision also coincided with the sentiments of conservative media personalities like Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham and Mike Cernovich, who have defended Trump through a cascade of controversies this year but protested the administration’s initial announcement.
“The ruling was absurd,” Ingraham, the Fox News host who has been considered for a job in the Trump administration, said on Monday. “Who could ever shoot these majestic creatures?” Ingraham called herself “a conservationist” who has been to Botswana three times, including this past summer with her children.
President Barack Obama’s administration banned the import of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia in 2014, citing the lack of data tracking elephant conservation in those countries. Trophies can be any part of the elephant, including tusks. His administration followed up in 2016 with a near-total ban on the commercial trade of African elephant ivory. That ban remains unchanged.
Both African countries have struggled to maintain or increase their elephant population, according to the Great Elephant Census, a project financed by Paul Allen, a founder of Microsoft. The project found that the African elephant population shrank nearly 30 percent from 2007 to 2014.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, overseen by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, determined that Zambia and Zimbabwe had now adopted acceptable plans to manage their elephant populations. The service lifted its ban on imported trophies from Zambia earlier this month and on Friday began accepting permits for elephants hunted in Zimbabwe.
But the permit application for both African countries was shelved late Friday when Trump announced his intent to review the decision. “Put big game trophy decision on hold until such time as I review all conservation facts,” he wrote. “Under study for years. Will update soon with Secretary Zinke. Thank you!”
He followed up Sunday with a more definitive message. “Big-game trophy decision will be announced next week but will be very hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of Elephants or any other animal,” he wrote.
Trump is not a hunter, unlike his sons, Donald Jr. and Eric. In 2012, photographs were posted online of the two men posing with several dead animals during a safari in Zimbabwe, including one that showed Donald Trump Jr. holding a knife in one hand and a severed elephant tail in the other.
Donald Trump Jr. said at the time that the hunt was legal and that such safaris actually help preserve wildlife by providing financial incentives to local residents to maintain their game populations.
He told Forbes magazine that he and his brother picked up hunting from their maternal grandfather. His father, a lifelong city-dweller, “really doesn’t understand why Eric and I hunt,” he added. “However, he is open-minded and so always allowed us to go hunting.”
Lara Trump, Eric’s wife, on the other hand, has become a vocal animal rights advocate and the Humane Society of the United States said she brought up the elephant trophy issue during meetings on Capitol Hill last Thursday. She and her husband visited the White House on Friday, but advisers to the president said they did not know whether the issue came up.
Trump was certainly getting grief about the announcement to lift the ban from others. Savage, a talk radio host who has defended Trump so ardently he once warned of civil war if Democrats removed him from office, was indignant. “Do brave men hunt elephants?” he asked followers on Twitter.
Cernovich, known for fanning the flames of far-fetched internet conspiracies involving liberals, posted pictures of himself on Twitter petting elephants and wrote, “These are magical animals and will change your life if you open your heart.”
On the other side, the National Rifle Association, another supporter of Trump’s, had hailed the lifting of the ban, calling it “a significant step forward in having hunting receive the recognition it deserves as a tool of sound wildlife management.”