Black Rhino Hunting Safari Auction Highlights Need to Save All Rhinos
Comments on Dallas Safari Club Auction of a Permit to Hunt a Black Rhino
29 October 2013
Much media attention has been directed this past week to the Dallas Safari Club’s intention to auction off a permit to hunt a black rhino in Namibia, the proceeds to go towards preserving this magnificent and critically endangered species. The International Rhino Foundation does not condone the hunt, but recognizes that it is legal under Namibian and United States law, and under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). We respect Namibia’s efforts to maintain a healthy rhino population as well as raise money for the important work of conserving the species. That said, we note that the fate of one hunted rhino pales in comparison to the nearly 800 rhinos lost to illegal poaching in South Africa alone this year and to escalating poaching losses in Namibia and other range countries where rhinos once thrived but now are barely hanging on.
The International Rhino Foundation is an apolitical, scientifically-oriented conservation organization that funds and operates rhino conservation programs in Africa and Asia. The sale of a critically endangered species for a trophy hunt has brought forth a range of emotions and arguments. It is a complex and multi-faceted issue with the following points to consider.
We believe that the facts pertaining to intra-species fighting as a justification for the permit auction are overstated. Young bulls naturally displace old bulls without human intervention (in normal, viable rhino populations) to maximize the ratio of effective male breeders in those populations. The issue is more about what happens to the naturally displaced old bulls that no longer are breeding. In a strictly genetic sense, they can be considered non-essential to population survival and, in situations where the rhinos are stocked at or near an area’s ecological carrying capacity (which ideally they should not be), then these bulls may be eating browse that younger animals need to maintain reproduction and to minimize loss of genetic diversity in the population.
Old bulls that lose body condition are sometimes gored in interactions with younger bulls when there is a high level of competition for food resources. The argument for hunting is that it is more humane to use a safari hunter’s bullet on such geriatric rhinos to avoid a lingering death and to generate funds for rhino conservation (assuming that a mechanism to return such income to conservation is in place).
A rationale for safari hunting of such animals must be clearly and accurately presented with clear criteria to identify which rhino bulls are geriatric and truly not essential for the population’s survival. The International Rhino Foundation recognizes that, if they are not poached or killed due to other reasons, black rhino bulls eventually reach an age at which they are marginalized in their population and do not contribute reproductively. If such bulls can be objectively identified, then an argument could be made that the safari hunting of these animals will have no negative biological impact on the rhino population and in specific circumstances may alleviate problems such as overstocking and fighting within species, although these should not be common problems in well-managed rhino populations. What is essential is that inviolate rules be in place to ensure that income from hunts is returned to rhino population sites to meet conservation needs such as protection and biological management.
There has recently been an increasing willingness within the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to allow for trade in products from well-managed populations of endangered species. Trophy hunting of black rhinos in Namibia is not new; CITES issues Namibia an export quota of up to five hunter-taken black rhinos per year. This, however, is the first time that a permit has been offered outside of Namibian borders, and the first time that such hunts have received this level of international attention.
But let’s talk about the issue that is being sidelined by the uproar over the Dallas Safari Club auction: rhinos are under siege. To-date this year, at least 793 rhinos have been poached in South Africa, including many reproductive or pre-reproductive females. We stand to lose a century of rhino conservation success in Africa in the next few years if we can’t stop, or slow, rhino poaching now.
Poachers typically operate as small, but well-armed gangs, sometimes backed by international organized crime syndicates. Their automatic weapons can take down a rhino as readily as ranger, and they are not averse to murdering anyone who stands between them and their payday. Some professional poachers prefer heavy caliber sporting rifles, which have a greater knockdown effect on rhinos than AK-47s.
The high-stakes black market trade in rhino horn has been linked to international terrorism, specifically to the recent mall attack in Nairobi. In July, US President Obama signed an executive order to combat wildlife trafficking, recognizing illegal wildlife trafficking as an escalating international crisis and establishing a task force to deal with the issue.
Sadly, all wild populations of rhinoceros are at serious risk from poaching. Namibia lost one rhino to poaching 2012 and, to-date in 2013, has lost four. This low poaching rate is most likely due to a combination of proactive protection and management, a law-abiding society, inaccessibility of rhino sites, and luck. Experience has shown that situations in Africa can change on a dime. It is a valid question to ask if it is worth sacrificing one rhino to contribute financially to the conservation and protection of a larger population.
The International Rhino Foundation has funded and operated rhino protection and conservation programs in Africa and Asia for 20 years. Rhino conservation is expensive. Every year we scramble to raise enough funds to support our work. The political and economic realities in the range countries (national commitment versus corruption, wildlife-based land-use versus subsistence farming, etc.) are the factors that really determine the fate of rhinos. National contributions to conservation budgets, in countries such as Namibia, considerably exceed contributions from the international donor community. It is inevitable that hunts such as the one proposed would generate confusion and concern among many members of the public who are aware of the plight of the world’s rhino species. But, it is also a reality that financial constraints and land-use challenges within the rhino range countries compel the authorities in those countries to consider various income-generating opportunities even if they involve limited, sustainable hunting of endangered species such as rhinos. It will not be possible for international conservation agencies to engage with and positively influence such countries in their rhino conservation endeavors unless objective consideration and respect is shown for their rhino management decisions, even those that are internationally controversial.
Finding middle ground between the different perspectives on rhino hunting is very difficult. Our position is therefore based purely on the optimization of conservation advantage for rhino species within their wild populations. The International Rhino Foundation will work with its international partners to regularly review the front-line conservation outcomes of safari hunts of rhinos in South Africa and Namibia and will draw attention to any negative outcomes or irregularities.