Tillerson praises anti-poaching lab as US lifts ban on importing trophies

US words and deeds are colliding as Tillerson travels across Africa.

Press Association
Last updated: 11 March 2018 - 7.00pm

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lavished praise on an American-funded forensics lab that tracks down elephant-poachers for prosecution, as he visited a sprawling reserve of Kenyan grasslands where endangered animals roam wild.

Yet earlier this month, the Trump administration quietly lifted the US ban on importing African elephant trophies, to the dismay of environmental groups who said it sent precisely the wrong message.

US words and deeds are colliding as Tillerson travels across Africa.

US Africa Tillerson
Rex Tillerson tours an anti-poaching forensic lab at the Kenya Wildlife Service in Nairobi (Jonathan Ernst/via AP)

On trade policy, HIV/Aids and humanitarian aid, the United States at times seems at odds with itself, muddying efforts to show it wants the continent to flourish and is there to help.

In the case of the elephants, conservationists appeared to have a powerful ally in President Donald Trump, who intervened personally last year to stop the US Fish and Wildlife Service from lifting the Obama-era ban on tusks imported from Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Trump took to Twitter to call the practice a “horror show”.

At the forensics lab at Nairobi National Park, the only such lab in east and central Africa, Tillerson agreed on Sunday when famed conservationist Richard Leakey warned that the “huge interest” in wildlife products such as elephant and rhinoceros parts was fuelling the international trafficking trade.

“That’s really the key, is to shut it all down,” Tillerson said.

But three months after Trump’s move to keep the ban in place, his administration reversed course again, saying elephant trophies could be imported on a “case-by-case basis”.

The US agency said it chose that course of action to comply with a court ruling that said the Obama administration failed to follow proper procedure in enacting the original ban.

In Kenya, where the elephant population has plummeted to roughly one-fifth of what it was in the 1970s, the new Trump policy fell flat.

“The whole world is against it,” said Paula Kahumbu, an elephant expert and chief executive of Wildlife Direct, a leading Kenyan environmental group.

She said past US support for banning the ivory trade has pushed China and other nations to act as well.

“To then say, ‘Oh, but we have a special case for some of our people, they should be allowed to have ivory,’ it totally undermines the US leadership role.”

Tillerson’s trip to Kenya was designed in part to highlight the success of Pepfar, the 15-year-old HIV/Aids programme that has saved millions of lives and helped see the continent through an epidemic that once threatened to wipe out a whole generation.

So HIV/Aids advocates are scratching their heads at why Trump has repeatedly proposed cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from Pepfar.

Visiting the African Union headquarters in Ethiopia earlier in his trip, Tillerson urged officials not to go ahead with a plan to impose a 0.2% tariff on imports.

The timing for Tillerson’s push was inauspicious: Trump is in the midst of going ahead with steep trade penalties on aluminium and steel imported to the US.

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