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A Trophy Hunt That’s Good for Rhinos

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 20, 2014

(Illustration: Liam Barrett)

(Illustration: Liam Barrett)

My latest, for The New York Times:

Let’s stipulate up front that there is no great sport in hunting a black rhinoceros, especially not in Namibia’s open countryside. The first morning we went out tracking in the northern desert there, we nosed around in vehicles for several hours until our guides spotted a rhino a half mile off. Then we hiked quietly up into a high valley. There, a rhino mom with two huge horns stood calmly in front of us next to her calf, as if triceratops had come back to life, at a distance of 200 yards. We shot them, relentlessly, with our cameras.

Let’s also accept, nolo contendere, that trophy hunters are “coldhearted, soulless zombies.” That’s how protesters put it following the recent $350,000 winning bid for the right to trophy hunt a black rhino in Namibia. Let’s acknowledge, finally, that we are in the middle of a horrific global war on rhinos, managed by criminal gangs and driven by a perverse consumer appetite for rhino horn in Southeast Asia.

Even so, auctioning the right to kill a black rhino in Namibia is an entirely sound idea, good for conservation and good for rhinos in particular.

Here’s why: Namibia is just about the only place on earth to have gotten conservation right for rhinos and, incidentally, a lot of other wildlife. Over the past 20 years, it has methodically repopulated one area after another as its rhino population has steadily increased. As a result, it is now home to 1,750 of the roughly 5,000 black rhinos surviving in the wild. (The worldwide population of Africa’s two rhino species, black and the more numerous white, plus three species in Asia, is about 28,000.) In neighboring South Africa, government officials stood by haplessly as poachers slaughtered almost a thousand rhinos last year alone. Namibia lost just two.

To be fair, Namibia has the advantage of being home to only 2.1 million people in an area twice the size of California — about seven per square mile, versus about 100 in South Africa. But Namibia’s success is also the product of a bold political decision in the 1990s to turn over ownership of the wildlife to communal conservancies — run not by white do-gooders, but by black ranchers and herders, some of whom had, until then, also been poachers.

The idea was to encourage villagers living side by side with wildlife to manage and profit from it by opening up their conservation lands to wealthy big-game hunters and tourists armed with cameras. The hunters come first, because the conservancies don’t need to make any investment to attract them. Tourist lodges are costly, so they tend to come later, or prove impractical in some areas. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism sets limits on all hunting, and because rhino horn is such a precious commodity, rhinos remain under strict national control.

The theory behind the conservancy idea was that tolerance for wildlife would increase and poaching would dwindle, because community ownership made the illegal killing feel like stealing from the neighbors. And it has worked. Community conservancies now control almost 20 percent of Namibia — 44 percent of the country enjoys some form of conservation protection — and wildlife numbers have soared. The mountain zebra population, for instance, has increased to 27,000 from 1,000 in 1982. Elephants, gunned down elsewhere for their ivory, have gone to 20,000, up from 15,000 in 1995. Lions, on the brink of extinction from Senegal to Kenya, are increasing in Namibia.

Under an international agreement on trade in endangered species, Namibia can sell hunting rights for as many as five black rhinos per year, though it generally stops at three. The entire trophy fee, in this case $350,000, goes into a trust fund that supports rhino conservation efforts. The fund pays, for instance, to capture rhinos and implant transmitters in their horns, as an anti-poaching measure. Trophy hunting one rhino may thus save many others from being butchered.

Many wildlife groups also support the program because Namibia manages it so carefully. It chooses which individual will be hunted, and wildlife officials go along to make sure the hunter gets the right one. (So much for the romance of the Great White Hunter.) The program targets older males past their breeding prime. They’re typically belligerent individuals that have a territorial tendency to kill females and calves.

So why the uproar this time? Namibia made the mistake of allowing the auction to take place in the United States rather than on its own turf. The outraged response started with a kind of Stephen Colbert bump in October. (“If you love something, set it free,” the comedian declared. “Then, when it has a bit of a head start, open fire.”) And it culminated last week in death threats, including one to the auction-sponsoring Dallas Safari Club promising, “For every rhino you kill, we will kill a member of the club.”

Protecting wildlife is a complicated, expensive and morally imperfect enterprise, often facing insuperable odds. The risk with trophy hunting is twofold: Commodifying an endangered species creates a gray zone in which bad behaviors can seem acceptable, and the public relations disaster this time could hurt Namibia’s entire conservation effort. But so far nothing else matches trophy hunting for paying the bills. For people outraged by this hunt, here’s a better way to deal with it: Go to Namibia. Visit the conservancies, spend your money and have one of the great wildlife experiences of your life. You will see that this country is doing grand, ambitious things for conservation. And you may come away wondering whether Americans, who struggle to live with species as treacherous as, say, the prairie dog, should really be telling Namibians how to run their wildlife.

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12 Responses to “A Trophy Hunt That’s Good for Rhinos”

  1. Reblogged this on The Last Word and commented:
    This is a very insightful look at the practicalities of Black Rhino conservation. It is definitely worth reading!

  2. Rick Boschen said

    Hey Dick – you hit the nail on the head. The “tree hugger/animal rights crowd” too often ‘don’t see the forest for the trees’ on how to approach species conservation issues. Making conservation work in the real world is rarely about simply saying “don’t touch that”. It is complicated and requires allowing activities that often come down to giving an economic value to individual animals. There is a compelling argument to allow trade in captive wildlife as well, although the mechanics of the “personal consumption” are different than trophy hunting the equally noble goal of SPECIES conservation (as compared to ‘saving’ an individual animal) can be harnessed. I will admit, as with pretty much any human endeavor, there is room for abuse in approaching conservation goals through commoditizing animal life, but to deny this a valid strategy in the mosaic of species conservation strategies is to deny the reality of what drives humans to protect the things they love.

  3. Just ran across this interesting piece about trophy hunting and conservation: http://conservationmagazine.org/2014/01/can-trophy-hunting-reconciled-conservation/

    Here’s an excerpt: It’s encouraging that trophy hunters seem willing to take conservation-related issues into consideration when choosing a tour operator, but it is possible that they were simply providing the researchers with the answers that would cast them in the best light. That’s a typical concern for assessments that rely on self-report. Better evidence would come from proof that hunting can be consistent with actual, measurable conservation-related benefits for a species.

    Is there such evidence? According to a 2005 paper by Nigel Leader-Williams and colleagues in the Journal of International Wildlife Law and Policy the answer is yes. Leader-Williams describes how the legalization of white rhinoceros hunting in South Africa motivated private landowners to reintroduce the species onto their lands. As a result, the country saw an increase in white rhinos from fewer than one hundred individuals to more than 11,000, even while a limited number were killed as trophies.

    In a 2011 letter to Science magazine, Leader-Williams also pointed out that the implementation of controlled, legalized hunting was also beneficial for Zimbabwe’s elephants. “Implementing trophy hunting has doubled the area of the country under wildlife management relative to the 13% in state protected areas,” thanks to the inclusion of private lands, he says. “As a result, the area of suitable land available to elephants and other wildlife has increased, reversing the problem of habitat loss and helping to maintain a sustained population increase in Zimbabwe’s already large elephant population.” It is important to note, however, that the removal of mature elephant males can have other, detrimental consequences on the psychological development of younger males. And rhinos and elephants are very different animals, with different needs and behaviors.

    Still, the elephants of Zimbabwe and the white rhinos of South Africa seem to suggest that it is possible for conservation and trophy hunting to coexist, at least in principle. It is indeed a tricky, but not impossible, balance to strike.

    It is noteworthy that the Leader-Williams’ 2005 paper recommended that legal trophy hunting for black rhinos be focused mainly on older, non-breeding males, or on younger males who have already contributed sufficient genetic material to their breeding groups. They further suggested that revenues from the sale of permits be reinvested into conservation efforts, and that revenues could be maximized by selling permits through international auctions. Namibia’s own hunting policy, it turns out, is remarkably consistent with scientific recommendations.

    Even so, some have expressed concern regarding what the larger message of sanctioned trophy hunts might be. Could the possible negative consequences from a PR perspective outweigh the possible benefits from hunting? Can the message that an auction for the hunting of an endangered species like the black rhino brings possibly be reconciled with the competing message that the species requires saving? This question is probably not one that science can adequately address.

    • Sandra McDaniel said

      Hi Mr. Conniff, I emailed you about an hour ago. Would you be able to join us on Al Jazeera America tonight regarding your Op-Ed? Thank you.

  4. Ann Parson said

    Re: yr Op-Ed on Rhinos, well done and thank you. Such an important model & let’s hope others follow!

  5. Everything of importance that happens with endangerd wildlife happens at the species level. Poaching of rhinos spiked from a dozen or so in 2007 to over 1000 last year. A single “management” bull harvested for $350K in conservation funds is a godsend and supports the goal of species preservation.

  6. Mark J Demyan said

    Thanks for the Reading.. and see my Post on Linked IN … Very interesting Point..I agree with for the most part …

    MJD

  7. […] for retirement? The Way We Produce And Advance Science More examples of how influenza still kills A Trophy Hunt That’s Good for Rhinos (important) Heavy drinking in middle age speeds cognitive decline, study finds The Midwestern Dead […]

  8. Richard Simons said

    Regarding Namibian elephants: in the north, there are so many elephants that the riverside forest along the Okavango River is being destroyed and converted into grassland. A rare habitat in the country is being lost because action to control what is, in this small area, a pest species would cause an international outcry.

    • Interesting possibility. But I thought people were working to expand the elephant population’s range back into Angola? Who’s the contact who is closest to the problem?

      • Richard Simons said

        You could well be correct about this – I was told that many of the elephants were basically refugees from the civil war in Angola.
        I’m sorry, I’ve been out of the country for a number of years and do not have a good contact. I’d try contacting the Directorate of Natural Resources Management, within the Ministry of Environment and Tourism.

  9. Can Private Conservation Contribute to Species Survival?

    http://andreww1blog.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/lions-and-rhinos-and-gazelles-oh-my/

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