The U.S. Fish and Wildlife decision to allow certain black rhino trophies entry into the country is a boon to rhino conservation.
In a recent press release the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved the import of two black rhinoceros trophies from Namibia. The decision is noteworthy for USFW, as the ban on the import of elephant and rhino trophies was thought by many to be impermeable.
However, the parameters of the Endangered Species Act allow for exemptions when circumstances prove to be for the benefit of the animal species in question. In this case, that means that the hunting of these two rhinos was instrumental in helping to sustain Namibia's rhino conservation efforts.
On the surface that may seem a counterintuitive notion. However, there is a simple explanation and reasonable justification for why hunting and harvesting a few animals is beneficial to the species as a whole. Black rhino conservation requires a lot of resources, resources in people, infrastructure, equipment and money.
It's well known that rhinos are highly sought by poachers. African countries inhabited by rhinos have a constant and sometimes losing battle against the poachers who kill the animals for their horns. In order for those countries to be able to continue their efforts to protect rhinos (and elephants), they of course need to fund their conservation and anti-poaching programs.
'A Powerful Tool'
Enter the wealthy foreign hunter. USFW Service Director Dan Ashe indicates that American hunters are instrumental in providing the monetary resources that enable the conservation and anti-poaching efforts of countries like Namibia to remain viable.
In exchange for the money that funds those efforts, hunters are allowed to hunt and cull a small number of targeted animals. Ashe says that American hunters booking hunting safaris in Africa are "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."
Namibian wildlife biologists have determined that the rhino population can sustain and even benefit from the removal of up to five animals per year. These are generally male rhinos that have been determined to be near the ends of their reproductive lives and who may also pose a danger to others in the population (old males rhinos have been known to attack and kill other younger male rhinos and even calves).
The removal of older, unpredictable males is understood to be important for the health of the larger population. These are the specific animals that are made available to hunters by auctioning hunts to the highest bidder, the monies from which must return directly to sustain the rhino conservation program. It appears to be a simple case of economics and science finding a happy meeting point.
For the Good of the Species
How this concerns the USFW decision to suspend the ban on these particular rhino trophies is important. The lifting of the ban is allowed for species that were harvested in a country of origin - Namibia in this case - that is determined to conduct a well-regulated, sustainable and beneficial conservation program for the species in question. Namibia meets those criteria and the proof is in the pudding.
With hunting as a distinct part of its management plan Namibia has been able to double its black rhino population during the time period of 2001 to 2012. Its rhino population was also on the verge of extinction 50 years ago, with a population of only 60 animals in 1966. Today the population is around 1,500 animals. The USFW decision to allow trophy imports from countries that are doing everything right in protecting their endangered animals will allow those efforts to continue.
The lifting of the ban is welcome news for both Namibia and the Dallas Safari Club, which last year auctioned a black rhino hunt on behalf of Namibia's Black Rhinoceros Conservation Strategy. DSC successfully auctioned the rhino permit for $350,000. 100% of auction proceeds were to go to Namibia for rhino conservation, habitat and anti-poaching initiatives. In the ensuing time since the auction, however, much controversy and opposition from animal rights groups threatened to cancel the hunt, and in turn the financial support that the Namibian rhino program would have received.
DSC Executive Director, Ben Carter, recounted, "Animal rights extremists bashed the scientists, threatened the buyer and harassed DSC. Now that the world's leading conservation agency has approved the hunt as a way to help rhino populations, and issued an import permit, I hope some of the naysayers will make an effort to actually understand what they were protesting,"
There was also a chance last year that the Namibian government may have denied the original auctioned rhino permit application due to a recent increase in incidents of rhino poaching in the country. It sounds a bit like a catch-22 situation. Increased poaching threatens to curb legitimate, sanctioned hunts, but if those legitimate hunts are curbed the funds necessary to sustain anti-poaching efforts may dwindle as well.
Back from the Brink
The American wildlife management model has proven itself to be highly effective in bringing a number of species not only back from the brink of extinction, but to strong and harvestable population numbers. Countries like Namibia are following that model with visible success, but they also have other factors to contend with, such as a constant struggle for funding, that threaten to stymie their efforts.
The USFW Service recognizes and supports Namibia's and other African countries' inclusion of "limited, sustainable sport hunting" as part of their wildlife conservation programs.
The hope is that other African nations struggling with wildlife conservation and funding issues will follow the lead of those like Namibia that are showing clear victories and significant conservation successes. The import of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe was denied by USFW because that country's wildlife management program was judged to not meet the stringent requirements for sound, long-term and effective wildlife conservation.
"The future of Africa's wildlife is threatened by poaching and illegal wildlife trade, not responsible, scientifically managed sport hunting," said Ashe. "We remain committed to combating heinous wildlife crimes while supporting activities that empower and encourage local communities to be a part of the solution."