Despite much protest from animal rights groups and conservationists, the Dallas Safari Club held an auction last weekend for a permit to hunt an older, post-reproductive black rhinoceros. Though the group expected bids to reach one million dollars, 35-year-old Corey Knowlton won the prize for $388,000.
Though controversial, the Safari Club held this auction to help black rhinos: the winning bid money will go toward conservation efforts in the south African nation of Namibia, where the hunt will take place. The Club estimates that a total of 1,800 wild black rhinos live in Namibia, out of an estimated 4,000 worldwide. Their numbers have dropped dramatically from 70,000 in the 1960s due to the multi-billion-dollar illegal poaching enterprise: a single rhino horn, which can be carved into ornamental items or ground for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine, can fetch up to $300,000 on the black market. There is no significant evidence to support the healing properties of rhino horns.
On the surface, it seems ridiculous to hunt an animal to show that we should conserve that animal, but the issue runs deeper than that. In the Safari Club’s defense, there are some compelling reasons to support their auction. Most importantly, money is needed to fight poaching in Namibia. Over 75,000 people signed a www.causes.com petition to stop the auction, and dozens traveled to Dallas to protest in person, but this didn’t translate into money for conservation efforts. According to Dr. Rosie Cooney of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Namibia culls five post-reproductive black rhinos every year, so the auctioned hunt would not increase the number of rhinos killed. This cull occurs because removal of older males actually increases the population due to reduced male fighting and lower juvenile mortality rates.
Still, the much-publicized auction glamorizes rhinoceros hunting. While Namibia’s routine culls take place with little fanfare, Knowlton — if he does choose to kill a rhino with his permit — will bring home trophies to show off as a status symbol that will encourage others. (Knowlton’s Facebook wall currently boasts many hunting photos, shown to an audience of over 12,000 fans.) The event also sends a confusing message about the U.S. stance on conserving endangered animals. According to Nature Conservancy lead scientist M. Sanjayan, “If the U.S. is allowing this [hunting] to happen, it’s very difficult with a uniform voice to plead with our Asian counterparts not to buy rhino horns.”
For obvious reasons, Knowlton chose to remain anonymous about his win, but was recently outed in a tweet from fellow auction-attending hunter Tom Opre. Knowlton has now acknowledged his win with no regrets, but remains cryptic about his future plans. From a public statement on his Facebook page:
Thank you all for your comments about conservation and the current situation regarding the Black Rhino.
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.
Knowlton has done much hunting in the past and will likely move forward with the rhino kill, but still seems open to debate, as long as the tone is civil and the message well-informed. If he had a dollar for all the threats and personal attacks he’s received so far, he could double his contribution to black rhino conservation.