Delta Air Lines bans big-game trophies from flights

Last Updated Aug 3, 2015 5:22 PM EDT

The friendly skies just became friendlier for animal lovers.

Under pressure from animal groups in the wake of the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe by an American dentist early last month, Delta Air Lines (DAL) on Monday said it was officially banning the shipment of all lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo trophies worldwide as freight.

Had Cecil's body parts not been confiscated by Zimbabwean authorities, they might have been transported back on Delta, given its third-largest hub is in Minneapolis, and Walter Palmer, the hunter who killed the lion, resides in Minnesota, Chris Green, director of legislative affairs for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said.

Delta did not return a request that it elaborate on its policy.

In addition to Delta, Green said nine other carriers -- British Airways, Lufthansa, Emirates, Qantas, Qatar, Etihad, Iberia, Singapore and Brussels Airlines -- have banned the transport of certain exotic animal hunting trophies in the three months since he posted a petition calling for end of the transports on change.org. Nearly 400,000 people had signed Green's petition as of Monday afternoon.

"I'm a loyal Delta flier," Green said. "The irony here is just a couple of days before the Cecil news broke, South African Airways (SAA) rescinded its ban based on pressure from hunting groups."

Nearly two weeks ago, South African Airways Cargo said it was reversing an April 30 decision to embargo the transport of hunting trophies involving rhino, elephant, tiger and lion.

"The embargo was never a permanent ban. SAA is a state-owned company and as such its operations must meet the expectations and objectives of its shareholder, the South African government," Tlali Tlali, an SAA spokesperson, said Monday in an email.

In its initial decision to ban the transport of hunting trophies involving the four animal species, the South African carrier cited troubles with shipments of trophies, citing an incident in early April in which a shipment identified as spare machinery parts actually held elephant tusks. "We had to act swiftly to curb the problem of illegal transportation of animals," Tlali said in a statement.

The illegal shipment of tusks came into play recently as President Obama announced the U.S. would establish a nearly complete ban on commercial ivory trade, with the new rules designed to get rid of, or severely curtail, the legal means used by poachers and traffickers to profit from illegally obtained ivory.

In its statement, Delta said it was reviewing its policies of "other hunting trophies" with government agencies and other entities.

Prior to Monday's announcement, the Atlanta-based carier said its policy called for "absolute compliance with all government regulations regarding protected species."

"Delta has set a great example, and no airline should provide a get-away vehicle for the theft of Africa's wildlife by these killers," Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, said in a statement.

"We cannot second guess any other carrier on their operational decisions," Tlali, the SAA spokesperson emailed on Monday when asked about Delta's new policy.

For U.S. carriers other than Delta and United (UAL), the topic was a non issue, given their flight routes do not include Africa.

"American Airlines does not serve the continent of Africa," a spokesperson said.

United did not return calls and emails requesting comment.