The reversal of the ban comes less than two weeks after the agency moved to allow imports from Zambia. Both decisions generally apply to elephants hunted in either country between 2016 and 2018. Hunters are allowed two imports per year.
Hunting trophies can include any number of body parts, including tusks. In 2016, the federal government, under President Barack Obama, imposed a near-total ban on the commercial trade of African elephant ivory, though trophies were exempted from that ban.
The African elephant population has drastically declined in the past decade, shrinking by about 30 percent between 2007 and 2014, according to the Great Elephant Census, an effort financed by the philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
That project found that Zambia and Zimbabwe have had mixed success in maintaining or growing their elephant populations. Parks near countries with poor elephant preservation efforts were not doing well, for example. But elephant populations elsewhere were stable or increasing.
Trophy tourism in Africa has come under high-profile scrutiny in recent years.
In 2015, an American dentist sparked international outrage after killing Cecil, a lion beloved by visitors to a national park in Zimbabwe. During the recent presidential campaign, photos recirculated on social media showing two of Donald Trump’s sons on safari in Zimbabwe posing with several dead animals. One photo showed Donald Trump Jr. holding a knife in one hand and a severed elephant tail in the other.
And, in a report published last year, the Democratic staff of the House Natural Resources Committee challenged the claim that hunting can help to pay for conservation, arguing that more oversight is needed.
News of the federal government’s decision was reported in a Tuesday blog post by Safari Club International, a hunters group, which said that officials had announced the decision at a conference in Africa.
The group had joined the National Rifle Association in suing the federal government over the 2014 ban and said that it would continue to challenge that decision so hunters can retrieve trophies from hunts that are still excluded.
Wayne Pacelle, the president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, criticized the decision in a blog post, describing the practice of trophy hunting as a “new form of colonialism.”
“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 wrote.
Mr. Pacelle also called into question Zimbabwe’s ability to manage its elephant population, noting that the government is itself in crisis. Just this week, its longtime autocratic ruler, President Robert Mugabe, was placed under house arrest by the military.