You might think that importing endangered species into the United States might be illegal. But you'd be wrong.
The US government grants some circuses and big game hunters permission to possess imperiled animals like elephants and rhinos, as well as their tusks, horns, or other parts, if they make donations to wildlife conservation groups.
That "pay to play" policy is the focus of a lawsuit brought by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) against the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which enforces protections against trafficking in threatened animals.
"It's just patently absurd that these are acts that are prohibited by the Endangered Species Act and people are allowed to buy their way out of it," PETA's deputy general counsel Delcianna Winders told VICE News.
PETA claims that FWS historically included circuses under an exemption for educational programs, which meant they weren't required to donate to conservation groups, even if they were using endangered Asian elephants in their shows. By 2011, the agency began telling circuses that they had to explain how their activities contributed to broader conservation efforts.
The circuses, PETA alleges, could fulfill those requirements by making a contribution to a conservation group protecting a given species — a rhino group or elephant protection organization, for example — or by contributing to anti-poaching efforts or scientific research.
The two circuses cited in the suit have received multiple animal welfare citations from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). One of the circuses, the Illinois-based Hawthorn Corporation, was cited over 100 times for abusing and neglecting its animals. In 2003, the USDA confiscated one of Hawthorn's elephants after it suffered chemical burns from standing in undiluted formaldehyde.
The Hawthorn Corporation received permits for stunt tigers after donating $50,000 to an Indian non-profit, Project Tiger. Those funds included a lobbyist hired by Hawthorn to help the circus secure the permits exempting it from Endangered Species Act provisions, the PETA suit alleges.
The Tarzan Zerbini Circus secured a permit to travel with endangered Asian elephants by contributing $500 to a small non-profit called Asian Elephant Support. According to PETA's suit, the USDA cited Tarzan Zerbini for animal welfare violations that included failing to provide enough space for elephants, exposing them to electrocution risk, and improperly treating an elephant for tuberculosis.
The FWS would not comment to VICE News on the suit because the agency does not discuss ongoing litigation.
PETA's Winders told VICE that the organization does not know how many exemptions the FWS has granted for circuses. The organization alleges that three exemptions have involved donations to conservation groups.
PETA's suit also cites two permits the FWS granted to big game hunters for importing endangered black rhino trophies.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) there are just under 5,000 black rhinos remaining in sub-Saharan Africa. The biggest threat to rhinos is poaching, which is driven by demand for rhino horn, which is used as a status symbol and consumed for its alleged medicinal qualities.
One of the world's largest black rhino populations is in the southwest African nation of Namibia. Thanks to the country's conservation efforts the number of black rhinos is increasing, according to WWF. Namibia recently began auctioning five black rhino hunting permits per year, using the proceeds to support the animal's protection.
In 2014, big game hunter and reality TV star Cory Knowlton placed the winning $350,000 bid for one of those permits at an auction held by the Dallas Safari Club, a hunters' rights and wildlife conservation group.
However, Knowlton still needed a permit from the FWS to bring his trophy home. The agency granted it earlier this year on the basis that Knowlton's bid will support rhino conservation in Namibia. In 2013, the FWS granted a similar permit to Michael Luzich, a Las Vegas investment manager who bought his hunting permit directly from the Namibian government.
In public comments made to the agency as part of the permitting process, the non-profit World Wildlife Fund, which works with Namibia on black rhino conservation, supported the 2013 import permit.
WWF declined to comment.
Jeff Flocken, the North American regional director for the Massachusetts-based International Fund for Animal Welfare, argues there are alternative conservation methods available. The organization is not part of PETA's suit against the FWS.
"Ecotourism brings many, many more dollars to countries in Africa than these small trophy hunts that kill the animals and take them out of the wild," he said.
"When you show that Americans will pay anything to kill a rare species for sport, that provides almost no incentive to keep viable large populations flourishing in the wild," he told VICE News. "Instead it just says: this is another reason that they are worth more dead than alive."
Follow Sarah Jane Keller on Twitter: @sjanekeller