By Clarissa Speyer-Stocks
CatlinSpeak (Portland, Oregon)
“Sold!” The final word rings out through the banquet hall of the Dallas Convention Center. From that moment on, a man’s life is completely changed. Corey Knowlton just bought a license to kill, at the price of $350,000.
Knowlton, a Texas millionaire and big game hunter, has just purchased one of the rarest hunting tags in the world. This conservation tag is a permit to hunt a black rhino, one of the most endangered species in the world; with only an estimated 5,055 left in the world.
Within a few days, Knowlton received both warm greetings and blessings to cold death threats as well as letters calling him a murderer.
This conservation effort is an ethical paradox, due to beneficial effects that conservation hunting provides by ridding the rhino population of aggressive older black rhinos that are detrimental to the species. While perpetuating the idea that killing of an animal can be both justified and bought.
Due to poaching, these animals face an extreme risk of extinction. At this point in time, ivory (from rhino tusks) is worth six times the value of gold. Thus causing outrage for this process, that many say should be illegal.
Knowlton defends his hunt in the name of conservation. Each country and state around the world has an agency that controls hunting, fishing, and conservation efforts. These agencies provide a select amount of hunting tags or permits for different areas and special animals most at the low price of $20. One can apply for these tags and be entered in a lottery to hunt either a certain animal or in a certain area. These tag lotteries can be very hard to win, especially in these big game areas like Canada, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. Tags like these can take up to ten years or more to win via lottery the tags.
Among these select tags, the conservation agencies save a few tags to be sold in auctions. These tags are called “conservation tags” and raise millions of dollars that in turn go back to the conservation agencies.
This system has received lots of backlash from animal rights groups and conservation movements, stemming from the juxtaposition of the hunting of endangered species to save said species.
The rhinos selected for these types of conservation tags are usually older and threatening to the species as a whole. For example, as male black rhinos become older they become more dominant and aggressive, killing other black rhinos in the wild, which many hunters use as an excuse to continue conservation hunting.
“Without us hunting them, they would go extinct,” one attendee of the 2015 Western Hunting and Conservation Expo told Radiolab. The hunters in these conservation societies truly believe that these tactics are beneficial to the species, and in some ways that does hold true.
The black rhino species numbers alone have increased by an estimated 51 percent, according to CNN. The reduction in population of aggressive older rhinos has significantly helped to improve this growth. In addition, the funds raised during auctions for the conservation tags have funded many successful breeding programs and anti poaching campaigns and enforcement. Despite this, many believe that the conservation hunting movement sends the wrong message.
Conservationist Richard Leakey, for example, commented on the oxymoron of conservation hunting, saying,“I think it’s utterly ridiculous.” He told Radiolab, “Yes you can kill five Rhinos from a breeding perspective, but does that send the right message?”
Leakey was head of Kenya’s Wildlife Conservation and Management Department in 1989, during the peak risk of elephant extinction. After confiscating twelve tusks of ivory from poachers, Leakey was told by advisors to sell it and pocket the money for the conservation effort and in turn fight the poaching effort.
Instead Leakey made a castle out of the elephant ivory and then burned it up. The flames lasted for three days and received worldwide media attention. “And what an impact it had on the world, opinion changed overnight,” said Leakey. And despite this dip in supply, the demand for ivory went down significantly. The ivory market crashed and suddenly there was outrage over poaching elephants.
Leaky insists that conservation hunting creates a message that it’s okay to hunt these animals and kill endangered species and in reality there are many more ways we can increase the conservation effort. The best way, he claims is by exposing people to the benefits of wildlife at a young age.
Despite the backlash that conservation hunting has received in the media, the results have improved the protections offered endangered species, and these conservation tag auctions are the largest providers of donations to the conservation agencies around the world.
Another issue that conservation hunting can create is lack of urgency in the protection of the endangered species, which is something that was evident within the Cecil the lion controversy. The killing of Cecil the lion was not in the name of conservation and was instead an illegal act of poaching. Walter Palmer privately paid $50,000 to Theo Bronkhorst, a professional hunter and guide, to jump the fence of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, to track and kill the lion.
Because of conservation hunting, it can be conceived that these animal’s lives are worth a lump sum or a couple hundred thousand dollars. Thus taking away from the message that clubs like the Dallas Safari Club wish to advertise, “that without us hunting them, they would go extinct” and that these hunts are for the species future. But when a price tag gets put on these endangered species illegal acts of poaching for sport, become more and more common.
This form of conservation is an extreme ethical dilemma, and many cannot differentiate between conservation hunting and poaching. As well as the paradoxical approach it provides, the controversy raises questions about whether one can justify the killing of an endangered animal for the good of the species. In turn, do animal’s lives have price tags acquainted with their worth?