Early in Donald Trump’s presidency, George Orwell’s 1984 was the book most often cited when critics wanted to put in perspective the Trump administration’s willful disregard of facts and history.
Now, with the Trump administration’s decision first to lift—and then to maintain (final action is currently on hold)—a 2014 ban by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the import of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe, at present in political crisis, and Zambia, a different Orwell has become relevant.
This Orwell is the author of “Shooting an Elephant,” a 1936 account of his days working for the British Empire as a police officer in Burma. The story centers on Orwell’s shooting an elephant that had briefly gone on a rampage but which, by the time Orwell came upon it, had quieted down.
The politics of “Shooting an Elephant” revolve around Orwell’s rejection of his role as a civil servant for an imperial England he finds contemptible, but the part of the story that illuminates the Trump administration’s back-and-forth thinking on the import of elephant trophies lies with Orwell’s description of what killing an elephant is like.
Orwell’s firsthand account of the death of an elephant has an intensity that has been missing from the current public debate over the import of elephant trophies and the best way to protect elephants, which since 1979 have been classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Orwell’s description of killing an elephant begins with him firing his first shot and seeing that a “mysterious, terrible change” had come over the elephant. “He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralyzed him without knocking him down,” Orwell writes.
“An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him. One could have imagined him thousands of years old,” Orwell then observes in language that turns the elephant into an aging man and leads Orwell to identify with him.
But the elephant is not yet dead, and Orwell is forced to fire again. Finally he brings the elephant to the ground. “He trumpeted, for the first and only time. And then down he came, his belly towards me, with a crash that seemed to shake the ground even where I lay,” Orwell observes.
For Orwell, there is no triumph, no hunter’s victory, in this moment. He does not feel relief. What stays with him is the elephant’s agony. The shooting scene ends with Orwell slinking off. “In the end I could not stand it any longer and went away,” he confesses.
By contrast, in the Trump family there seems to be no shame in killing an elephant or other African game. In a 2011 hunting trip Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump happily posed with the game they shot. The most revealing shot of the two showed Donald Trump Jr. proudly holding up a severed elephant’s tail for all to see. It was as if the president’s son had decided to borrow a page from the famous hunting trip in Africa that President Theodore Roosevelt took in 1909 after the conclusion of his time in the White House.
Donald Trump is on record as saying in 2012 of his sons’ love of shooting big game, “I am not a believer in hunting, and I’m surprised they like it.” Perhaps that belief will lead the president to keep the ban on importing elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia—even if imagining the suffering of a dying elephant does not move him.
But keeping the ban won’t be easy. In “Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell puts the value on a dead elephant at 5 pounds, based on the price of elephant tusks in the Great Depression marketplace. Today, a two-week African elephant hunt can cost over $50,000 per person, and for the president there is the added incentive that the arch-conservative National Rifle Association has been one of the groups opposing the ban on the import of elephant trophies.