By Liat Clark
A Texan safari club has announced a permit to hunt an ageing black rhino in Namibia sold at auction for $350,000 (£214,000), amid much protest from animal welfare groups. However, a UK research fellow currently running a rhino conservation project in South Africa has told Wired.co.uk that the practice is a "perfectly reasonable" one that has proven successful in the past.
"Countries like South Africa and Namibia have been incredibly successful at conserving their rhino populations by following exactly this policy," Bob Smith, Senior Research Fellow at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (Dice), University of Kent, told Wired.co.uk. "For example, the number of white rhinos in South Africa has increased from a few dozen early in the 20th Century to 20,000 now and this has been partly because private landowners are able to profit from having rhinos on their land through eco-tourism and trophy hunting."
Smith's work focuses largely on designing conservation landscapes and protected area networks, and he has carried out projects in 14 countries across Africa, Asia and Europe. Coauthor of Trade-Offs in Conservation: Deciding What to Save, he is currently working on a project monitoring the factors that influence rhino managers' decisions after an apparent uptake in private sales was instigated by increased poaching in South Africa. Despite a heavy research focus on the impacts of corruption on conservation, Smith is a believer that conservation projects are successful when the local population is deeply involved, as in South Africa where private landowners helped an increase in the white rhino population when financial incentives were introduced based, partially, on trophy hunting.
"The standard narrative on African rhino conservation drives me mad," he told Wired.co.uk, "as it is overly negative and assumes the people in charge don't know what they're doing. The permit auction is completely legal and has gone through the appropriate Cites (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) approval. Given this, I think it is perfectly acceptable for a sovereign state that has been extremely successful in rhino conservation to make decisions about its own animals."
The black rhino population is currently recovering from a historical low that occurred during the 70s, 80s and 90s -- numbers plunged from a peak of 65,000 in the 70s to around 2,300 in 1993. This was largely due to poaching, driven by a demand in Vietnam and China where the animal's horn is thought to be an aphrodisiac, cancer cure or status symbol, depending who you ask. That's despite a 1977 ban on the selling of rhino parts stipulated by the same Convention that has now allowed the limited sale of rhino-hunting permits in Namibia, Cites.
Anti-poaching efforts led to a steady return in numbers, and black rhino numbers are now estimated to be around 5,050 according to figures provided by the IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group, 1,700 of which live in Namibia. But poaching has been on the increase again due to a rising middle class in nations such as China where demand for the rare rhino horn has spiked. In 2011 a subspecies of the western black rhino was declared extinct, and in 2010 the last of the Javan rhinos, indigenous to Vietnam, was killed by poachers. According to a report by the International Rhino Foundation, two rhinos were being poached in South Africa every day in 2013, with an estimated 688 killed there in 2012.
Namibian authorities have been selling three hunting permits a year to raise conservation funds, and in a letter to the Dallas Safari Club it said: "To hunt a black rhino is not taken lightly by Namibia. Only old geriatric bulls, which are marginalised in the population and do not contribute to reproduction, are trophy hunted."
"Trophy hunting generally focuses on a few prize specimens and well-regulated trophy hunting does its best to maintain the population size and the number of trophy animals," adds Smith.
The auction took place at the Dallas Convention Centre, where 30,000 people were in attendance. The Club's executive director Ben Carter told CNN the group was "extremely happy and proud" to have raised the money on behalf of Namibian conservationists, an amount he claimed was the most raised for the cause at any one time. "This is the best way to have the biggest impact on increasing the black rhino population... They've already picked out two or three black rhino males that are old, non-breeding males that are not contributing to the population any more. We know it's the right way to do it. We're relying on science and biologists. This is the best way to support the population of black rhinos."
According to Carter, the method has the backing of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, among others.
"A lot of people don't understand because they just don't know about it. It makes sense if you can raise this much money at one time."
It's true that legal trophy hunting has been ongoing for many years in countries where conservation remains a national priority. Smith points to permits being issued for the hunting of lions, elephants and other threatened species in African countries, and beyond (in Pakistan the endangered markhor is hunted).
"All of these raise funds for conservation, although there are some cases where people have alleged the money is poorly spent."
In Namibia the practice has been ongoing for years, however this is the first time the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) decided to take the auction outside of the country (usually operators would travel to the country, to purchase them at auction there). This is most likely a bid to reach the wealthiest of hunters, by taking it straight to the centre of the action at safari clubs, a report on the auction by UK conservation charity Save The Rhino suggests. "Texas is one of the wealthiest states in the US and it makes sense to set your stall out where the money is," said the report. "There's no point opening a shop selling de Beers' diamonds in a council estate in a rundown city suburb." More....