If you were an elephant, you might be puzzling over human behavior this week. On Monday, the animal-rights attorney Steven Wise filed a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of three privately owned Asian elephants, arguing that the animals are “legal persons” who have a right to bodily liberty and should be free to live in a sanctuary. Then, on Thursday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the remains of elephants legally hunted in Zimbabwe and Zambia could now be legally imported to the United States as trophies.

This new policy overturned a ban put in place by the Obama administration in 2014. African elephants are considered “threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, a step below being endangered. The animals’ numbers have plunged from around 10 million 100 years ago to around 400,000 today, largely because of poaching and habitat loss. The Fish and Wildlife Service has not changed the elephants’ status; instead, it now argues that supporting “legal, well-managed hunting programs” will help provide “much-needed conservation dollars to preserve habitats and protect wild herds” in Zimbabwe and Zambia, the agency’s principal deputy director, Greg Sheehan, said in a news release.

But then, to further complicate matters, President Donald Trump tweeted Friday evening that nothing would actually change until he “reviews all conservation facts.”

The idea that killing more elephants will help save the species is counterintuitive, and its line of reasoning is difficult for many conservation organizations to support: Let rich hunters pay hefty sums to shoot elephants, and use the money to help conservation efforts and local communities. Supposedly, the villagers won’t then need to poach elephants to feed their families and pay their kids’ school fees. Still, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, a respected organization that sets the conservation status for all species, supports the notion.

But the evidence that “hunting elephants saves them” is thin. The hunting-safari business employs few people, and the money from fees that trickles down to the villagers is insignificant. A 2009 report from the IUCN revealed that sport hunting in West Africa does not provide significant benefits to the surrounding communities. A more recent report by an Australian economic-analysis firm for Humane Society International found that trophy hunting amounts to less than 2 percent of tourism revenue in eight African countries that permit it.*

And then, there is a larger moral question: How does hunting affect male elephants, especially the “big tuskers” that hunters want, and the overall population?

If elephants are recognized as legal persons, a term the U.S. courts have granted corporations and a New Zealand court gave to a river (elsewhere the term has been extended to chimpanzees, a bear, and the environment), it would be more difficult to hunt them at all—let alone import their body parts. Wise’s lawsuit cites extensive scientific studies that have established elephants’ cognitive abilities, emotional and empathetic natures, complex social lives, lifelong learning, and memory skills. “Taken together, the research makes it clear elephants are autonomous beings who have the capacity to choose how to live their lives as elephants,” he tells me.

One thing elephants would not choose, Wise and elephant researchers agree, is to be hunted. “It doesn’t matter to elephants if they are killed by poachers or trophy hunters,” says Joyce Poole, who has studied African elephants in the wild in Kenya and Mozambique for more than 40 years and is the codirector of ElephantVoices, a conservation organization. “Either way, you’re a killer. And if elephants understand that about you, they change their behavior.”

Elephants aren’t considered game animals in most African countries with substantial populations of these animals. But trophy hunters after large male elephants can seek their prey in South Africa, Namibia, Cameroon, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Gabon, and Mozambique. Kenya banned the sport in 1973, while Tanzania continued to permit legal hunting. That caused problems for the elephants of Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, says Poole, who was studying the large males in the park at the time. The park borders Tanzania, and after the Tanzanian government opened a hunting block on the opposite side, the Amboseli male elephants who wandered across became prized targets.

“It was an awful time,” Poole recalled, “because on one side, the elephants learned to trust tourists—generally white people—in cars. From our studies, we know they can smell the difference between whites and local people. They also distinguish us by our languages. They know people who speak Maa, the language of the local Maasai people, may throw spears at them; those who speak English don’t.” However, the tables were turned on the Tanzanian side of the border. There, white people in cars who drove up close to see an elephant might lean out with a camera—or a rifle.

“The elephants didn’t run because they didn’t expect to be shot,” Poole said. Two of the large males she was studying were lost this way to trophy hunters. She and others protested to the Tanzanian government, and these particular hunting blocks were eventually closed.

Poole does not know how the loss of these big males, who’d fathered many calves, affected the other elephants. Female elephants, though, do mourn family members who die, and are especially troubled when the matriarch, their leader, passes. In 2003, for instance, researchers in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve watched as Eleanor, an elephant family’s matriarch, died from natural causes. When Eleanor fell heavily to the ground, Grace, a matriarch from another family, used her tusks to lift her friend and helped her to her feet. Despite Grace’s efforts, Eleanor died that night. She had a tiny, six-month-old calf who never left her side. In a photograph, the calf stands like a small sentinel beside her mother’s body, while the rest of the family bunches together, grieving.

Researchers have rarely seen similar moments among male elephants, who as adults, live away from the female herds they grew up in, and return only to mate. That behavior led to a “myth that males are far less social than females,” said George Wittemyer, a conservation biologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins who has studied elephants in Kenya for more than 20 years. His new research contradicts this notion. “Actually, the males are always in groups and have preferences for certain companions. They’re not the loners they’ve been made out to be,” he said.

“The death of a bull will cause less disruption than the death of a family member,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a zoologist who founded the organization Save the Elephants. “If a bull is shot while associating with a family the others will normally run away.” But he noted: “Bulls will defend or help each other sometimes, when one is down.”

From a population standpoint, “older male elephants are very important to the health and genetic vitality of a population,” said Cynthia Moss, who has led the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya since 1972. While hunters in the past have used the belief that older males are reproductively senile as an argument for killing them for their ivory, research has revealed that they are in fact an elephant population’s primary breeders. “By living to an older age, [older males show that] they have the traits for longevity and good health to pass on to their offspring,” Moss said. “Killing these males compromises the next generation of the population.”

It’s not clear if the Fish and Wildlife Service will consider how trophy hunting affects individual elephants or their families. The agency didn’t comment on Trump’s tweet when contacted, but later issued a public statement confirming that permits would be put on hold. “President Trump and I have talked and both believe that conservation and healthy herds are critical,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in the statement.

Wise believes that the emotional and psychological suffering the elephants endure from this sport is obvious. “One day it will be seen for the moral outrage that it is,” he said.

Before Trump’s tweet, the Fish and Wildlife Service had intended to begin issuing permits for importing elephant trophies on Friday. The new policy would apply to elephants hunted in Zimbabwe between January 21, 2016, and December 31, 2018, as well as elephants hunted in Zambia from 2016 to 2018. Regardless of how hunting affects elephants, if the policy goes through, some hunters will have trophies waiting for them in those countries.


* This article originally misstated the portion of tourism revenue contributed by trophy hunting. We regret the error.