By Amanda Spadaro, Science Editor
Nov. 8, 2013
A Texas organization, the Dallas Safari Club, announced its intention to auction off a black rhino hunt in the name of conservation efforts. The black rhino, a species of which there are only an estimated 5,000 remaining in the wild, is considered a critically endangered species, making the opportunity to hunt one a perhaps priceless opportunity—or that’s the idea behind the auction. The DSC expects a selling price of at least $250,000 and up to $1 million according to their public announcement, stating that 100 percent of the proceeds will go to Namibia’s Game Products Trust Fund, focusing on black rhino protection.
Despite the controversy surrounding such an announcement, the DSC received approval from the Government of the Republic of Namibia, a coastal country in South Africa, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service “has promised full cooperation with a qualified buyer,” according to the press release on their website, gametrails.org. The website also contains the club’s mission, divided into three categories: conservation, education and protection of hunters’ rights.
Namibia is home to one of the most stable black rhino populations in Africa, boasting a population of around 1,800 rhinos. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora grants Namibia five black rhinos for export. The permits are typically sold to local hunting groups, money that additionally goes to conservation efforts.
Recently, though, Americans have not been able to obtain these permits as black rhino trophies, but the FWS has made an exception, hoping that a permit open to Americans will sell for a higher price. An “unprecedented sale price” is expected, according to the DSC’s press release.
DSC Executive Director Ben Carter called upon the idea that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few when defending the club’s decision to National Geographic.
“There is a biological reason for this hunt, and it’s based on a fundamental premise of modern wildlife management: populations matter. Individuals don’t,” Carter said.
“By removing counterproductive individuals from a herd, rhino populations can actually grow,” Carter said to ABC News, focusing on the idea that herd survival can increase without the presence of certain individuals.
In rhino populations, older bulls, aside from being non-breeding, are often aggressively territorial. This type of behavior can be fatal for younger bulls, cows and occasionally calves. The DSC stated on their website that, “Removing these individuals can lead to greater survival of other rhinos and, in turn, greater abundance of the species.”
“Black rhinos are very territorial so you will have an older male that is keeping younger males from reproducing,” said Tim Van Norman, with the FWS, to Al Jazeera. “By removing these older males from the population, you get an increase in the production of calves. Younger males are able to impregnate the females that are in that area so you get more offspring than from some of these older males.”
Similarly, an aggressive, older bull was removed from the Waterburg Plateau National Park in Namibia in 2009 to raise $175,000 for rhino conservation.
Regardless of potential benefits, the auction has received significant criticism from a number of animal rights groups. One concern is that making allowances for permitted hunting of an endangered species in the name of conservation could lead to further death.
“The problem with this is that if you create all these little import allowances one at a time, it’s a slippery slope, and soon America just has an open trade in these highly endangered species,” said CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, Wayne Pacelle, to Huffington Post.
Pacelle also expressed that there is more sense in simply having wildlife enthusiasts donate money for rhino conservation than paying to hunt.
“I think if they were multimillionaires and they were serious about helping rhinos, they could give money to help rhinos and not shoot one along the way,” Parcelle said to ABC News, questioning the hunters’ motives.
Furthermore, hunting rhinos for sport is not particularly thrilling, as Pacelle explained: “Rhinos are enormous lumbering animals who confront predators with their horn and physical mass. Shooting a rhino is about as difficult as shooting a tank… In terms of the sportsmanship component it’s totally lacking.”
The Humane Society has plans to petition the FWS in attempt to prevent additional permits, according to Pacelle.
Jeff Flocken, North American director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, believes that this auction sends the wrong message, implying that the black rhino is worth more dead than it’s worth alive. “Killing animals to save them is not only counterintuitive but ludicrous,” Flocken told National Geographic. “We’re talking a highly endangered species, and generating a furor to kill them in the name of conservation is not going to do anything to help them in the long run.”
Unfortunately, as populations decrease, prices continue to rise for animal products like polar bear rugs and elephant ivory. Poachers kill an estimated two or three black rhinos daily in Africa, an all-time high, according to Scientific American. These poachers kill for rhino horns, believed to have medicinal qualities in China and Vietnam.
According to the International Business Times, rhino poaching in South Africa increased by 5,000 percent in the last since 2007. In 2013, as of October, there have been 688 known rhino deaths by poachers whereas there were 13 in 2007.
“Every single rhino is under the threat of poaching at the moment,” said Director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Species Conservation Program, Barney Long, to Antara News. However, the WWF also sent a letter to the FWS in 2009, advocating for the removal of non-breeding males.
British conservation charity Save the Rhino has advocated for proactive hunting while still acknowledging the minor details in play. Save the Rhino has also argued positively for the auction being held in America rather than remaining within Namibian boundaries.
“Couldn’t they get $750,000 without having to suffer an animal being shot? Well, yes,” Save the Rhino said in a statement on the official website, savetherhino.org. “It would be nice if donors gave enough money to cover the spiralling costs of protecting rhinos from poachers. Or if enough photographic tourists visited parks and reserves to cover all the costs of community outreach and education programmes. But that just doesn’t happen.”
The money the DSC hopes to raise with its auction will partially aid population surverys and security equipment to limit poaching.
Despite public criticism, the auction is still scheduled to take place during the DSC convention in January.