AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Back in 2015, after an American trophy hunter killed a beloved lion named Cecil in Zimbabwe, the Obama administration made it harder to import African lion trophies into the country. This was under the Endangered Species Act. Now, according to documents obtained by the advocacy group Friends of Animals, the Trump administration has issued more than three dozen permits to bring lion trophies back to the U.S. And many of those hunters have close ties to the Republican Party. Here to talk more about this is Michael Harris. He's the director of the wildlife law program for Friends of Animals. Welcome to the program.
MICHAEL HARRIS: Thank you very much for having me.
CORNISH: So tell us about some of the people who are receiving these permits and what they have in common.
HARRIS: Well, what we found is that - almost to an individual - they have ties to the Republican committee and have been promoting fundraising for Republican candidates or have directly donated money to Republican candidates. Probably the most high-profile individual on our list is an Indiana resident Steven Chancellor who had raised more than a million dollars for Republican candidates and was an active supporter of Trump during the election. But we have seen Republican donors from all over the country - from Texas to Indiana to Virginia - who have been able to be the recipients of some of these permits.
CORNISH: What have you learned about the process of determining who or who does not get a permit?
HARRIS: In the past, we have looked at how many permits are denied versus granted. And what we have found is that applications are almost always granted. We haven't seen any denied. So we really call this pay-for-play because as long as you're willing to put up the money to go there and you apply for the permit and pay your permit fee, it appears it's going to be granted.
CORNISH: It also means that Republican or Democrat, you could probably get one of these permits, right? I mean, talk about why you're drawing the conclusion that this is pay-for-play specifically for Republicans.
HARRIS: Well, I don't think we're trying to say that it's specifically for Republicans. What we're saying here is this is a program that the Republicans have utilized in greater numbers. In fact, we don't see any Democratic donors on the list at all. So it's just who wants these permits. It's not necessarily that the administration is favoring them, but it's a program that they know that their supporters would like to see. And they were very unhappy with the Obama administration's attempt to roll back the permit - applications that were being granted for these type of hunts.
CORNISH: And how much harder had the Obama administration made it for hunters or big game hunters to get these permits?
HARRIS: So the Obama administration undertook a review of the conservation programs in several African countries to see if they were meeting the standards that would help ensure that these species didn't go extinct. And one of the concerns the Obama administration had was that hunting was being unregulated in some countries in Africa, like Zimbabwe. And they had initiated bans to prevent U.S. hunters from going over there and killing these animals and bringing their parts and their trophies back to the United States.
CORNISH: So what changed?
HARRIS: Well, nothing really changed on the ground. What has changed, of course, is we have a new administration and a new secretary of the Interior.
CORNISH: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has said in the past that, quote, "legal and well-regulated hunting can benefit the conservation of certain species." And these permits exist, in effect, because they're part of that policy. So what's the issue here?
HARRIS: I think that their reasoning is based upon very outdated and unsupported thinking. What we have seen in the last decade is numerous researchers and individual organizations, like Friends of Animals, sort of try to test that hypothesis that hunting can be a conservation tool. And the reality is that in most instances, it's not well-regulated first of all but also that there's really no on-the-ground proof that hunting of threatened and endangered species is doing any good.
CORNISH: That's Michael Harris. He's from the group Friends with Animals. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
HARRIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.