Is it okay to kill a rhino to save its species? American hunters say it makes perfect sense, but they’ve sparked a vicious war of words on the internet that has conservationists caught in its crossfire.
In mid-January, an unknown bidder paid $350,000 for the right to hunt a threatened Black Rhino in Namibia at an auction arranged by the Dallas Safari Club (DSC), one of the best-known hunting organisations in the United States.
The auction was preceded by death threats against DSC members, including it’s executive director, Ben Carter, and his children. “I have trouble understanding what part of the auction causes them to want to kill me and my family,” he told me, “I think a lot of people react emotionally, without knowing the facts, and perhaps even when they know the facts, want to ignore the real world.”
It was the first such permit ever to go under the hammer in the U.S. — they’ve previously only been sold inside Namibia — and the DSC says that all auction proceeds will go towards rhino conservation.
“You all deserve to die”
As soon as Carter announced the auction last October, his club began receiving nasty messages. Some were general — “You all deserve to die” — while others were more detailed: “You subhuman rednecks have something to worry about now. For every rhino you shoot, we’ll kill 10 of your members, or their families if we can’t get at them. We have your membership list.”
The story was picked up by national outlets across America, and soon vicious emails were shooting into the Namibian inbox of Marcia Fargnoli, the SRT’s head.
“I received hundreds of hate mails from strangers telling me I am a rhino murderer,” Fargnoli says. “It broke my heart. I work every day, every night and every weekend just to do the best I can to save them, and it kills me inside every time I hear of another one lost. It was the last thing I needed, to be attacked so personally by people who had no facts.”
A basic mistake
Her critics had “no facts” because the Dallas news channel had made a basic mistake. The profits from the hunting club’s auction are destined not for the SRT, but for the Game Products Trust Fund, a Namibian government fund that supports conservation with revenue from the sale of wildlife products and national park entrance fees.
The SRT, although it also works with wildlife and has ‘Trust’ in its name, has nothing to do with the auction or rhino hunting, although it received a vehicle for rhino surveys from the Game Products Trust Fund long before the auction controversy blew up.
To add to the confusion, a British charity called Save the Rhino International — which is not affiliated to the SRT but donates money to the SRT — published a statement that appeared to support trophy hunting as a means of paying for rhino conservation, triggering more outrage from people who didn’t think a rhino should die by the gun of a rich American in order to save its species.
Hunters to the rescue?
Hunters often use South Africa’s success in saving the Southern White Rhino to show the benefits that hunting can bring. About a century ago there were less than 50 Southern Whites left there. Their numbers rose slowly, and in 1968 parks agencies began selling permits to hunt rhinos that were too old to breed, putting the profits into intensified conservation. Private ranchers began breeding them in part because of high trophy fee profits, further increasing rhino numbers. Today there are about 20,000 Southern Whites in South Africa, despite massively increased poaching in recent years.
The Dallas Safari Club says their auctioned hunt will be good for rhinos because a carefully selected, old, post-reproductive male will be shot, one that kills younger, fertile males and stops the herd from growing. By international agreement Namibia can only hunt five Black Rhino per year, which they say is too few to harm the population, and trophy hunting revenues can pay for extremely expensive anti-poaching patrols.
But some conservationists say the benefits of trophy hunting aren’t as clear as the DSC says. It’s not the 1960s anymore, and legal hunting sends a message to consumers in Asia that killing rhinos is OK, which might encourage more poaching.
There’s a further difficulty: Rhino hunting could increase the size of Namibia’s Game Products Trust Fund but simultaneously put it off-limits to the organisation that could perhaps use it most effectively to conserve rhinos, the SRT.
Why? The SRT’s core philosophy has always been that rhinos are worth more alive than dead. If they take ‘rhino blood money’ after the high-profile auction furore, they risk being accused of hypocrisy by internet critics and losing crucial public support.
Marcia Fargnoli says that this means that the SRT “will need even greater support now from people who care about keeping rhinos alive on this planet.
“The truth remains that if people want to save this animal from extinction, they have to start donating their time or money to do just that.”