President Donald Trump said Friday he will uphold a ban on importing trophies of elephants hunted and killed in Zimbabwe, pending further review, reversing his own administration's decision from just a day earlier after a public outcry.
"Put big game trophy decision on hold until such time as I review all conservation facts. Under study for years. Will update soon with Secretary Zinke. Thank you!" Trump tweeted.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the pair came to the decision after they "talked and both believe that conservation and healthy herds are critical."
Just hours before, Trump's spokeswoman Sarah Sanders had defended the US Fish and Wildlife Service's move to end the 2014 ban initiated under Trump's predecessor Barack Obama.
The service said Thursday that it would begin issuing permits to import "sport-hunted trophies from elephants hunted in Zimbabwe" between January 21, 2016 and December 31, 2018.
Zambia would also have been covered under the revised rule.
The move was met with a barrage of criticism from animal rights groups and activists.
It also came on the same day that the US State Department presented to Congress its first annual report on wildlife trafficking which, it said, "remains a serious transnational crime."
'Unfit for office'
French screen legend and animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot added her voice to the growing chorus of criticism, slamming Trump as "unfit for office" after his administration's "shameful actions."
"No despot in the world can take responsibility for killing off an age-old species that is part of the world heritage of humanity," Bardot said in a letter to Trump, released through Fondation Brigitte Bardot.
The move is "a cruel decision backed by Zimbabwe's crazy dictator and it confirms the sick and deadly power you assert over the entire plant and animal kingdom," the 83-year-old actress added.
"Your shameful actions confirm the rumors that you are unfit for office."
According to the Great Elephant Census project, African Savanna elephant populations fell by 30 percent between 2007 and 2014, while Zimbabwe saw a drop of six percent.
Despite an overall fall in poaching, Africa's elephant population has declined in part because of continued illegal killing, said a report this year by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
African ivory, in particular, is highly sought in China where it is a status symbol.
A provision in the Endangered Species Act says the import of such trophies can be legal if accompanied by proof that the hunting benefits broader conservation of the species.
Trump's sons are known to have a passion for hunting.
In one widely shared photograph, Donald Trump Jr poses with a knife in one hand and an elephant tail in the other, the animal's corpse beside him.
The US decision follows tumultuous days in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe refuses to resign after the military seized control of the country.