Animal rights groups have slammed the decision. The White House says it has not yet finalised allowing trophy hunters in Zimbabwe and Zambia to bring the endangered animals home as trophies.

A bird flies over a family of elephants walking in the Amboseli National Park, southeast of Kenya's capital Nairobi. April 25, 2016.
A bird flies over a family of elephants walking in the Amboseli National Park, southeast of Kenya's capital Nairobi. April 25, 2016. (Reuters)

The administration of US President Donald Trump faced a barrage of criticism on Thursday from animal rights groups after it authorised the import of Zimbabwean elephant hunting trophies.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service said in a written notice issued on Thursday that permitting elephants from Zimbabwe and Zambia to be brought back as trophies will raise money for conservation programmes. 

A licenced two-week African elephant hunt can cost more than $50,000 per person, not including airfare, according to advertised rates.

The change marks a shift in efforts to stop the importation of elephant tusks and hides, overriding a 2014 ban imposed by the Obama administration. 

The new policy applies to the remains of African elephants killed between January 2016 and December 2018.

"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 agency said in a statement.

Outrage over move

Animal rights activists and environmental groups expressed scepticism on Thursday that killing elephants could help save them. 

Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of The Humane Society of the US, said the policy change sends the wrong signal amid international efforts to curb illegal poaching.

"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?" Pacelle asked.

But the move was quickly praised by groups that champion big-game trophy hunting, including Safari Club International and the lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association. The two groups had sued to challenge the ban in court.

Chris Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action, called the action "a significant step forward in having hunting receive the recognition it deserves as a tool of sound wildlife management, which had been all but buried in the previous administration."

Cox said, "By lifting the import ban on elephant trophies in Zimbabwe and Zambia the Trump administration underscored, once again, the importance of sound scientific wildlife management and regulated hunting to the survival and enhancement of game species in this country and worldwide."

Trump's hunter sons

President Donald Trump's two adult sons are avid trophy hunters. 

A photo of Donald Trump Jr holding a knife and the bloody severed tail of an elephant he reportedly killed in Zimbabwe in 2011 also sparked outrage among animal rights activists. 

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Thursday referred questions about the policy change to the Fish and Wildlife Service, saying no announcement had yet been "finalised." 

The agency said the formal announcement of the policy will be published in the Federal Register on Friday.

Illegal poaching

The world's largest land mammal, the African elephant has been classified as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act since 1979.

Illicit demand for elephant ivory has led to devastating losses from illegal poaching as the natural habitat available for the animals to roam has also dwindled by more than half. 

As a result, the number of African elephants has shrunk from about five million a century ago to about 400,000 remaining. And that number continues to decline each year.

According to the United Nations, as many as 100,000 African elephants were killed between 2010 and 2012. For forest elephants, the population declined by an estimated 62 percent between 2002 and 2011.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies