Knowlton paid $350,000 on Saturday for the right to one of five permits issued this year to shoot an endangered black rhino in Namibia, as part of the first auction for such a hunt held in the U.S. The auction sponsor, the Dallas Safari Club, says 100 percent of the proceeds will go to conserving rhinos in Namibia.
But some conservation groups have condemned the hunt as sending the wrong signal about saving endangered species.
Dallas-based Knowlton, 35, was identified as the auction winner on social media, and he is currently holed up in a hotel room in Las Vegas, according to media reports.
He contacted the FBI about an onslaught of death threats against him and his family, and he has retained a private security firm for protection.
On his Facebook page, Knowlton wrote, "I am considering all sides and concerns involved in this unique situation. Please don't rush to judgment with emotionally driven criticism towards individuals on either sides of this issue. I deeply care about all of the inhabitants of this planet and I am looking forward to more educated discussion regarding the ongoing conservation effort for the Black Rhino."
On that same Facebook page, one person wrote, "You are a BARBARIAN. People like you need to be the innocent that are hunted."
Another wrote, "I find you and I will KILL you." And another: "I have friends who live in the area and will have you in there [sic] sights also."
One woman added, "A hunter afraid of being hunted?! How do you think the rhino feels idiot?"
Knowlton is a consultant for the Hunting Consortium, an international guide service, and a co-host on a hunting show on the Outdoor Channel called Jim Shockey's The Professionals. He says he has hunted more than 120 species on almost every continent.
In response to his critics, Knowlton told CNN: "I respect the black rhino. A lot of people say, 'Do you feel like a bigger man?' or 'Is this a thrill for you?' The thrill is knowing that we are preserving wildlife resources, not for the next generation, but for eons."
He called himself a "passionate conservationist" who "believes in the cycle of life." Knowlton and the Dallas Safari Club have said the hunt will target an older male rhino that is no longer able to reproduce, and will therefore not hurt the status of the species, which is embattled partly because of poaching for its valuable horns.
Some conservation groups, such as the WWF and Save the Rhino, have expressed support for such limited, controlled hunts if they raise money for conservation. But animal advocates like the Humane Society of the United States and the International Fund for Animal Welfare have loudly condemned the practice.
Jeff Flocken, North American director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, told National Geographic that hunting sends a signal to world markets that the animal is worth more dead than alive. Conservation efforts should focus more on ecotourism and photo safaris, he said.
The Dallas Safari Club says not enough money is raised that way. Save the Rhino said in a statement, "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."
Regardless of the debate, it's clear the rhino hunt auction has touched a nerve with many people who care about animals and conservation.
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