Is an American hunter who's planning to shoot an endangered black rhino in Africa and who wants to bring its head home as a trophy helping to save the species?
It's a question the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is grappling with as it decides whether to grant a license to reality TV show co-host Corey Knowlton to import the rhino head. Knowlton bid $350,000 last year to win a much-publicized auction for the chance to kill a black rhino and is expected to travel to Namibia after the country's hunting season opens next month.
Trade in any rhino parts is restricted by international law, so hunters must get a special permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service to import them as trophies. That requires showing that the animal was killed in the name of conservation—and that bringing it home also helps that cause.
Decisions about such permits by Fish and Wildlife usually attract little notice. The agency typically receives three to eight comments from the public regarding pending requests to import trophies of endangered animals.
But since the auction last January, sponsored by a group called the Dallas Safari Club, Fish and Wildlife has received more than 15,000 comments about the trophy permit for Knowlton. The agency declined to characterize the comments, which are not public. But it has also received 135,000 signatures on petitions opposing the permit from groups like the Endangered Species Coalition, Care2, and Move On.
The permit request has stoked a broader debate about the legitimacy of hunting in the name of conservation.
The Dallas Safari Club and other supporters of the idea say that trophy hunting provides critical funds for conservation. Auction proceeds are given to a trust that makes grants for rhino conservation in the country, such as supporting anti-poaching patrols.
Trophy-hunting opponents, meanwhile, say that the idea of killing endangered animals to help save them is absurd. It "sends the signal that the animal is worth more dead than alive," says Jeff Flocken, North American regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Fish and Wildlife is expected to issue its decision on the permit any day.
Rhinos in Trouble
Black rhinos have declined precipitously in recent decades. The trend is driven by habitat loss and poaching for their horns, used in traditional Asian medicine, despite the fact that Western scientists say they have no real therapeutic value.
Scientists estimate there are around 5,000 black rhinos left in the wild, down from 70,000 in the 1960s. (See "Rhino Wars" in National Geographic magazine.)
Namibia has recently earned high marks from environmentalists for trying to protect its remaining rhinos. The country supports some of that work by auctioning off up to five permits a year for trophy hunts of select individual rhinos. Most permits have been sold locally; the Dallas auction last January marked the first time that a sale happened in the U.S.
But the practice is increasingly coming under scrutiny from animal welfare groups.
The controversy boiled over after Knowlton won the auction, which bought a permit to shoot an aging bull rhino elected by Namibia's game managers. The news triggered outrage on social media. Knowlton received death threats and hired a private security firm.
Coverage of the issue also spotlighted another American hunter, Michael Luzich of Las Vegas, who has also requested to import a trophy in connection with a black rhino hunting permit in Namibia.
Meaning of a Trophy?
To grant such permits, Fish and Wildlife must show that the importation of the trophy "enhances conservation of the species," according to Gavin Shire, the agency's chief of public relations.
It's a standard established by the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species, the international law that makes trade in endangered species parts illegal. The law allows countries to grant specific exemptions if they can show that the exemptions benefit conservation.
In reviewing permit applications, Shire says that Fish and Wildlife examines the health of the species in the host country, reviews the country's management plan, checks that the money paid for the hunting permit goes to conservation, and works to ensure that the imported trophy won't enter the black market.
Dallas Safari Club executive director Ben Carter says that if Fish and Wildlife were to deny Knowlton's permit request, American sportsmen would be less likely to bid on hunting permits, hurting conservation efforts.
The agency has approved such permits in the past. A change now, Carter says, would be like someone "buying a car, then showing up to the dealer and being told, 'We'll take your money, but you can't have the car.'''
But Flocken says that hunters aren't motivated primarily by conservation: "It's really about the killing."
Knowlton did not respond to a request for comment.
Hunting as Conservation?
The idea of shooting animals to save them "may sound a little counterintuitive," Shire admits, but the concept has been around for years. The U.S. system of national wildlife refuges was largely built on fees collected from hunting.
Carter is blunt about the economics of African wildlife conservation: "It costs a lot of money to keep black rhinos expanding, and nobody else is providing those funds."
In 2009, the conservation group World Wildlife Fund (WWF) sent a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service in support of controlled hunting of black rhinos in Namibia, saying it "will strongly contribute to the enhancement of the survival of the species."
WWF declined to comment for this story.
Carter says that Namibian game managers have selected older male black rhinos as targets because they are no longer breeding and can limit the growth of the local population. That's because they continue to assert dominance by preventing younger males from breeding with females, meaning fewer rhino babies.
Shire says the Fish and Wildlife Service is currently studying that argument.
But Flocken says there are problems with it. "No one knows when adult male rhinos stop being reproductively viable because there have been no scientific studies on it," he says. If game managers want to increase genetic diversity by allowing younger males to breed, he says, they should move "problem" rhinos.
Wardens do occasionally move rhinos, sometimes from country to country, in a bid to thwart poachers. The process costs about $10,000 per animal, and Flocken notes that 35 rhinos could be moved for the price of the Dallas Safari Club's winning auction bid.
"That's a fine idea," Carter says, "but I haven't seen a lot of checks going to that."
He criticizes animal rights groups for spending money on advertising and legal campaigns to discredit trophy hunting "while not sending money to the government of Namibia to support conservation on the ground."
Some conservation groups are on the record as supporting the auction, including Save the Rhino, which has not issued a statement on the pending trophy permit but which has supported regulated trophy hunting in the past.
"It would be nice if donors gave enough money to cover the spiralling costs of protecting rhinos from poachers," the group said in a statement. "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.
South Africa introduced limited white rhino hunting in 1968, when there were only 1,800 of the animals in the country. That number has since risen to 19,000, Save the Rhino notes.
But rhino poaching has hit an all-time high, with two to three killed by poachers every day, largely to feed demand for horns in China and Vietnam. The horns are made of keratin, the same material as human fingernails, and are marketed as medicines for everything from cancer to hangovers.
"This is a critically endangered species," Flocken says, "and we're at the point where every individual matters."