Black Rhino Hunt Auction Won’t Help Conservation

black rhinos
Black rhinos, photo courtesy of Black Rhino Monitoring Project sponsored by the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation.

This weekend the Dallas Safari Club (DSC) plans to auction off the chance to kill one of the world’s last black rhinos—and shockingly, the U.S. government may be okay with it despite the species’ protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  According to DSC, which describes itself as both a pro-conservation and pro-hunting group, the proceeds of the January auction will go toward African conservation efforts, thereby creating a loophole that would allow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to grant a permit to import the dead animal as a trophy. (See “Rhino Hunt Permit Auction Sets Off Conservation Debate.”)

With around 1,800 black rhinos remaining in Namibia (where the hunt is slated to take place) out of a worldwide population of only 5,055, the announcement has caused more than a few double-takes. Comedian Stephen Colbert nailed it when he ripped into the obvious irony of the “kill it to save it” argument on his show The Colbert Report in October when the scheme was announced.

As Colbert pointed out with biting satire, the idea of creating a bidding war for the opportunity to gun-down one of the last of a species ostensibly in the name of conservation is perverse and dangerous to buy into.  It promotes the economic axiom that scarcity equals value when dealing with living species.  If an animal like the rare black rhinoceros is worth the most with a price on its head, what possible incentive does this provide range countries and local people to move the species toward recovery when the biggest buck can be made short-term by selling permits to kill them to the highest bidders?

We’ve seen this perverse economic incentive happen with polar bears and tigers, where perceived rarity has caused “collectors” to rush out and try to kill or own the last pieces of these animals, and the price for their parts have sky-rocketed, thereby making extinction that much more likely.

Another economic problem with DSC’s proposed one-off kill-for-conservation is the fallacy that this is the best way to raise money for conservation.  DSC Executive Director Ben Carter offered his support for the auction to the Dallas Observer when he said, “People are talking about ‘Why don’t you do a photo safari?’ or whatever. Well, that’s great, but people don’t pay for that.”

But the truth is that non-hunting ecotourism, such as the photo safaris that Carter scoffs at, provide much greater revenue to Africa, which is a real incentive to keep rhino populations plentiful.  Indeed, ecotourism has become such an important part of some African countries’ economies that governments are taking steps against hunting in order to protect this flourishing industry. For example, last year, Botswana announced a ban on hunting permits, citing its booming ecotourism sector—which now makes up 12% of national GDP—as the primary factor.  Compare this to trophy hunting, which as a portion of any national economy never accounts for more than 0.27 percent of the GDP.

And while a one-time killing of a rare rhino will bring in instant cash, the result is that there is now one less rhino for all other future tourists to see, so the possible revenue generated by this animal ends right there with one vainglorious hunt for a single wealthy American.

The truth isn’t complicated: People do pay to see wild animals, without feeling the need to hack off their body parts for a private viewing in their living rooms back in Texas.  In fact, a recent Synovate poll found that 70.4  percent of Americans would pay to view another disappearing species—lions—on an African safari, while only 6.6  percent of Americans would pay to hunt them.

The auction to kill one of the last wild black rhinos is just another example of the warped logic that’s exploiting our wildlife “for their own good.”  It is pushing a species like the iconic black rhino closer to extinction by telling the world that rhinos are worth more to us rare and dead than healthy and flourishing in the wild where they belong.

Jeff Flocken is the North America regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Changing Planet

Jeffrey Flocken leads a team of legislative professionals advocating for U.S. policy initiatives on wildlife conservation and animal welfare in his role as Regional Director, North America from IFAWs office in Washington, D.C. His work addresses improving government involvement with wildlife conservation and animal welfare issues within the U.S. and internationally. Jeff was a member of the team of experts responsible for convincing eBay to ban ivory sales on all of its affiliated sites. He has testified before the U.S. Congress regarding polar bear legislation and was a member of the team of non-governmental organizations who wrote the technical petition to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to list the African lion under the Endangered Species Act. The listing, if approved, will have a significant impact on the survival of lions in the wild, as American hunters --who make up the majority of lion hunters globally-- would no longer be able to import trophies.  Jeff has briefed the U.S. Congress on the Great Cats and Rare Canids Act of 2009. In addition to that briefing, which urged support for conservation of rare canids and felids within their range states, he is co-author of the report which documents steep declines in the populations of these species. Jeff is the co-founder and co-chair of Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders, which provides training and mentoring to up-and-coming conservationists.