Poachers, Not Big Game Hunters, Are the Real Threat to Endangered Rhinos [UPDATED]

Many conservationists were outraged when the Dallas Safari Club auctioned off the right to kill a critically endangered black rhino. But a legal hunt might just help the species—and won't hurt the bigger fight against poaching

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Alan Becker via Getty Images

There are just 5,000 black rhinos left in the world, which is why conservationists are so angry about a legal hunt

Once hundreds of thousands of black rhinoceroses roamed much of southern Africa. But since the 1960s, their numbers have dropped sharply, thanks largely to poaching, since their horns are highly valued in traditional medicine. Today there are just about 5,000 black rhinos left, living on a fraction of their old territory. That makes them a critically endangered species, just a couple of stops away from becoming extinct.

So it may not be surprising that many conservationists were outraged when they heard that the Dallas Safari Club (DSC)—a Texan group for big game hunters—had auctioned off the legal right to hunt and kill a black rhino in the southern African country of Namibia. The cost: $350,000, won by an unknown bidder. More surprising, the group says the auction was done in the name of conservation, with the money going to support conservation efforts in Namibia. To save the black rhinos, they have to kill one.

That seems absurd to conservationists like Jeffrey Flocken, the North American regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), a major anti-poaching group. Last week on his blog Flocken wrote:

All the DSC is accomplishing is kicking up more enthusiasm for hunting in an era when conservationists are struggling to prevent mass extinctions. Instead of helping the conservation cause, as they claim to be doing, the Dallas Safari Club is sending the message that killing endangered animals is not only fun, but conscientious as well.

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Flocken wasn’t the only one to be angered by the move: the FBI is investigating alleged death threats made against the club, and a few dozen people gathered on Jan. 11 outside the auction to voice their opposition. Though DSC said the auction and accompanying convention had record attendance, the winning bid was much less than the $1 million organizers had hoped to raise. “There’s no question in my mind that the negative publicity dissuaded some people from bidding,” Richard Cheatham, the DSC’s volunteer general counsel, told the Dallas Morning News.

Park rangers and wildlife officials in Namibia—which is considered a model for its success in combating poaching—will benefit from the $350,000 raised at the DSC auction. But surely, with just 5,000 black rhinos left living in the wild, can it possibly serve the species to allow one of them to be hunted and killed? Conservationists are meant to do just that—conserve. What role then does killing of any kind have.

But the situation might not be as clear-cut as that. The permit auctioned off by the DSC is one of five made available each year by Namibia, and it stipulates that only an older male black rhino—past the age of reproduction—is allowed to be killed. More than that, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)—which deals with endangered species—removing a handful of such older males may help the larger population survive:

Black rhinos are very territorial. The removal of post-reproductive males can reduce competition with younger bulls, potentially providing those younger bulls with a greater opportunity to reproduce.

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The Namibian government tracks all known black rhinos in the country, making it possible—according to FWS—to select the specific individuals that can be safely and productively removed from the population. It’s not a surefire thing—M. Sanjayan, the lead scientist at the Nature Conservancy, compares the idea of “sustainable hunting” to trying to fight global warming by recycling. It won’t hurt the cause, but it won’t do a whole lot either.

Conservationists might worry that any trophies—basically rhino body parts—taken from the hunt might enter the black market, encouraging further killing, but the FWS notes that selling such a memento would be a violation of the Endangered Species Act or the Lacey Act, both of which carry penalties of prison time and large fines. It’s almost certain that any trophy taken would end up stuffed and mounted on the hunter’s wall, not ground up to be sold for traditional medicine.

As for the idea that a legal black rhino hunt would directly lead to more poaching, poachers don’t need any more encouragement than they already have. Rhino horns can be worth as much as $300,000 on the black market, while the criminal penalties for poaching or trafficking in many African countries is little more than a fine. There’s a reason wildlife trafficking is now a $7-$10 billion market, making it the fifth most lucrative illegal enterprise in the world—and one that global criminal syndicates are now getting involved in. While Namibia takes good care of its endangered species—and reaps the tourism benefits—rangers in many African nations are hopelessly outgunned by increasingly sophisticated poachers. The result is a catastrophe—last year a record number of rhinos were killed in South Africa, with nearly a thousand poached for their horns, up from just 22 a decade ago. One highly regulated hunt in Namibia won’t change the bloodbath, and will at least supply rangers with some of the funds needed to even the odds.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t something ethically icky about choosing to spend $350,000—plus expenses—to hunt and kill one of the last 5,000 or so black rhinos left on this planet, no matter the higher purpose. And there’s a legitimate concern that any form of legal hunting will hurt the global effort to reduce the demand for wild animal products, which is growing rapidly in Asian countries like China. Sanjayan notes that when the Asian public is asked where the ivory tusks used to make traditional medicine products come from, they believe that there’s simply found on animals that have died naturally, not ones that were hunted and killed. “If the U.S. is allowing this to happen, it’s very difficult with a uniform voice to plead with our Asian counterparts not to buy rhino horns,” he says. “It confuses the message.”

I know why people were so instinctively angry when news came out that a hunting club had put a bounty on a blameless rhino. But the truth is that every rhino, elephant and other ivory carrying species already has a bounty on its head—and will until the world gets serious about fighting wildlife trafficking. “In the long run we have to fight the demand for ivory,” says Sanjayan. That’s where the anger should really be directed.

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Update 1/13/14, 4:57 PM: I want to add a response from Dr. Rosie Cooney of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s oldest and largest conservation group. She notes that the IUCN is supportive of the auction, arguing that what the DSC is doing will not increase the number of black rhinos that will be killed—Namibia selects five to be culled each year—and that the auction at least allows more money to be directed towards wildlife protection:

I’m afraid while it would be nice to be able to recommend alternative approaches for conservation that don’t involve killing animals (even those that will no longer contribute to population growth), we view trophy hunting as playing an important and generally effective role in conservation over large areas of Africa in particular, with important local livelihood benefits in some contexts, such as in Namibia. Tourism can be a very effective and successful approach in certain circumstances, and in Namibia is widely employed alongside trophy hunting, or in areas that have previously generated revenue from trophy hunting after they reach a certain level of social and infrastructure development. However, successful tourism relies on a high level of capacity, capital, infrastructure, large wildlife populations, political stability and a scenic environment – all of which may be lacking; and it generally generates considerably greater environmental impact (through roads and infrastructure, water use, rubbish generation etc) than limited, carefully managed hunting.

In this case, a $350,000 hunt might be the best option available.