With the population of the critically endangered black rhino only around 5,000, why did the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service (US FWS) recently issue sport-hunting permits to kill two black rhinos in Namibia? The permits, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each, will allow two wealthy American sport hunters to import their black rhino trophies into the country after killing the critically endangered animals in Namibia.
Citing “clear conservation benefits,” the US FWS has provoked a storm of negative reaction with the issuance of the two controversial permits. Unhappy with the apparent hypocrisy of the US FWS claim, Jeff Flocken, North American regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) responded, “Killing animals is not conservation – pure and simple.” Flocken added, “To say otherwise is to distort the gruesome reality of the situation.”
The Critically Endangered Black Rhino
Magnificent and beastly ugly all at once, the black rhino is a powerful and charismatic enigma. Will the powdered horn of the rhino make a man more strong, healthy, and virile? Ancient Asian medical tradition supports this claim and subsequently drives the highly profitable trade in illegal rhino horns. In the Middle East, dagger handles from rhino horns are also highly prized status symbols, adding to the demand which entices illegal animal poaching.
There are five surviving species of rhino still living in the wild today. All are listed in the IUCN Red List, ranging from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered, and all are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, of which the United States is a member, also guarantees protection of all rhinos.
Does the Good of the Many Override the Killing of Two?
Under the Endangered Species Act, the US FWS permits the import of sport-hunted black rhino trophies “only when hunting in the country of origin is well-regulated, sustainable and benefits conservation of the species in question.”
According to the US FWS, the black rhino hunts recently permitted will generate a combined total of $550,000 for wildlife conservation, anti-poaching efforts, and community development programs in Namibia. The Service also points out that Namibia is a country with a steadily increasing population of rhinos.
“United States citizens make up a disproportionately large share of foreign hunters who book trophy hunts in Africa,” said Service Director Dan Ashe. “That gives us a powerful tool to support countries that are managing wildlife populations in a sustainable manner and incentivize others to strengthen their conservation and management programs.”
Contradicting the “Very Spirit of Animal Welfare”
IFAW North American Regional Director Flocken is not satisfied with this approach. “As U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service points out in their statement,” said Flocken, “Americans make up a disproportionately large share of foreign hunters who book trophy hunts in Africa.”
Flocken continued, “Extravagant trophy hunting of endangered species is the opposite of conservation and gives a bad name to the American people, most of whom find such blood sport antiquated and repulsive. Needless to say, we are disappointed with the Service’s decision, which contradicts the very spirit of animal welfare.”
IFAW is an organization founded in 1969 for the protection of animals facing crises from all around the globe. Advocating for wildlife and habitat protection, IFAW has ongoing projects in over 40 countries, working to rescue and prevent cruelty to animals.
US FWS Offers Rebuttal to Critics
“The future of Africa’s wildlife is threatened by poaching and illegal wildlife trade,” stated US FWS Director Dan Ashe, “not responsible, scientifically managed sport hunting.” Service Director Ashe continued, “We remain committed to combating heinous wildlife crimes while supporting activities that empower and encourage local communities to be a part of the solution.”
Prior to permitting the import of the two black rhino trophies hunted in Namibia, the Service held a 30-day public comment period. The Service stated it received more than 15,000 individual comments, and over 135,000 petition signatures. According to the Service, it “reviewed each of those comments for scientific or technical information to inform its decision and carefully considered the concerns and perspectives of commenters.”
With an established record supporting its methods, the US FWS points out that North American trophy game hunting has led to the restoration of the white-tailed deer, elk, moose, and a number of other species. Recognized by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, as well as other international wildlife management and conservation organizations, well-managed wildlife programs can be of significant long-term benefit. These programs include limited, sustainable sport hunting.
According to US FWS website statements, “By law, the Service cannot and will not allow trophies of certain protected species into the United States that were hunted in any nation whose conservation program fails to meet high standards for transparency, scientific management and effectiveness.”
Is the Black Rhino Program Working in Namibia?
Between 2001 and 2012, Namibia’s black rhino population has more than doubled. Concentrating on maximizing population growth rates, Namibia’s Black Rhinoceros Conservation Strategy has adopted biological management and range expansion strategies. The goal has been to increase Namibia’s black rhino population by a minimum of five percent each year.
Namibia’s management plan allows the harvest of five males from the black rhino population each year. This decision has been supported by the member countries of CITES. As the top five males are presumed to be already genetically dominant in the black rhino population, their removal each year is believed to allow younger, less dominant males the chance to mate, potentially leading to a quicker population increase. From my own experience as a sheep and goat breeder, allowing new blood into the gene-pool is also an effective strategy for improving the health of an animal population, as it helps prevent repetitive in-breeding.
Finally, as an integral part of Namibia’s successful conservation strategy, local communities receive direct economic benefits from the presence of the growing black rhino population, and thus help disincentivize poaching. That half million in US Dollars received for only two sport-hunting permits will clearly result in an economic advantage to Namibia, as it goes to funding wildlife conservation programs, anti-poaching efforts, and community development programs.
Putting Pressure on the Poaching Trade is Also Working
And, fortunately, poaching is beginning to decrease in many areas. Rhino poaching has dropped to zero over the last year in Chitwan, Nepal. In Assam, India, the population of rhinos has risen over the past decade. A 2014 Islamic fatwa issued in Indonesia specifically protects endangered wildlife, and an earlier fatwa specifically forbids the Muslim’s use of rhino horns for daggers.
Most recently, in early 2015 the China Buddhist Association issued a landmark declaration for Buddhists to “obey rules and laws on wildlife protection, to refrain from participating in any killing or trade of wildlife.” This welcome and timely edict requests Chinese Buddhists to “refuse to buy and use wildlife products such as ivory and rhino horns; to actively inform law-enforcement or conservation organizations on activities involving killing or trade of wildlife; to help save those wild animals captured illegally; to encourage those who are available to participate in animal conservation NGOs or support wildlife projects.”
With continued pressure like these excellent efforts, a strong damper on the illegal trade of poached animal parts is being made. The populations of endangered animals, including the critically endangered black rhino, are now standing a greater chance to rebuild their numbers, especially under the careful management and watchful eyes of international conservation programs.