Dallas (CNN) — Corey Knowlton is on edge sitting inside a Las Vegas hotel room, surrounded by a private security detail, explaining why he spent $350,000 for the chance to hunt a black rhinoceros in the southern African nation of Namibia.
“If I sound emotional, it’s because I have people threatening my kids,” Knowlton told CNN. “It’s because I have people threatening to kill me right now [that] I’m having to talk to the FBI and have private security to keep my children from being skinned alive and shot at.”
Knowlton was outed over social media as the winner of the Dallas Safari Club’s auction for a black rhino hunting permit from the Namibian government last weekend. It didn’t take long for the threats and vitriol to start pouring in.
“You are a BARBARIAN. People like you need to be the innocent that are hunted,” posted one woman on Knowlton’s Facebook page.
Some sounded even more sinister. “I find you and I will KILL you,” read another threat. “I have friends who live in the area and will have you in there sights also,” wrote another commenter.
here is a black rhino in Namibia that will be shot by a sports hunter who won an auction for the privilege. The permit to kill the rhino was won in competitive bidding for the sum of $350,000. All proceeds will be donated to support the rhino conservation efforts in Namibia.
There has been an expected outcry on the internet over this event. There are people who hunt big game some (but not all) of them have little problem with this, and then there is everybody else, and most people find the idea of killing a black rhino, which are endangered, abhorrent.
I want to relate the story of another rhino, a white rhino, that was killed after a similar auction, elsewhere in Africa. I won’t give details of time, place, organizations involved, or individuals involved because I feel that the reaction to this sort of thing could spill over in inappropriate ways. The point of relating this story is to add some nuance to the situation.
There is a rhino conservation project with which I’m intimately familiar. It was initiated years ago by a charismatic conservationist and expert on the rhino. The project has three major components. First, there is a large area fenced off from the surrounding landscape on which both white and black rhinos roam free. You might wonder if rhinos can roam free in a fenced off area, but the area is quite large, nearly 90,000 acres. This is about the size of the city of Montreal or Detroit. Many areas in Africa in which “wild game” live have fences around them, though there is a trend to take down the fences especially where the enclosed areas are on the small side.
Second, there is a larger project that defines a biosphere, including the aforementioned reserve, of nearly 15,000 square kilometers. This is about the size of Connecticut. The biosphere includes numerous game parks, some that allow hunting, and a number of human-use areas, but with restrictions of what sorts of uses are allowed. The biosphere includes one of the more unique floral communities in the world with a high degree of endemism, and is the home of the usual range of African animals including rhinos and several antelope species, though I don’t think there are any elephants there at the moment. This is also home to an impressive avian and reptilian fauna.
Third, there are a number of tourist destinations within the biosphere that bring income to the local communities and help run the conservation projects, including one at the aforementioned rhino conservation area. Some of the tourist destinations, as mentioned, accommodate hunting. In addition to the tourist areas there are also nature-oriented schools and childrens’ programs, though I’m not very familiar with them.
The rhino reserve is big, but so are rhinos. Several years ago, a large and older white rhino took over the breeding rights of a large number of female rhinos in this reserve. White rhinos are not especially aggressive, but when it comes to mating competition they are fairly typical as male mammals go. This rhino was doing damage to other males on the reserve, and was actually starting to damage some of the females. I don’t think any rhinos had been killed but it seemed inevitable at the time.
And, as it turns out, this particular rhino was sterile. This constituted a serious threat to the otherwise very successful rhino breeding program, which had been producing rhinos for introduction into area where they were previously hunted out.
One might think that you could just pen up a rhino like this, keeping it separate from the other animals, perhaps making it an “ambassador rhino” for tourists to see up close. Unfortunately, that turns out to be more difficult than it sounds. Rhinos are large powerful animals and this one was especially large. Black rhinos are very aggressive. Once penned up it would spend considerable effort to escape, and would likely have a certain degree of success. A smaller adult male black rhino that was raised as an orphan, rescued after hunters killed its mother, was easily able to escape from a well built corral a few years ago, at this same reserve. It did considerable damage, focusing mainly on the cars in the nearby parking lot. A white rhino female, also an orphan, raised in the same facility was released at maturity, bred, and the last time I saw her was wandering the bush with her new baby and doing quite well.
The point is this: If you raise large mammals, there often comes a time when one of them has to be put down owing to any of a number of different reasons. The bush in Africa, for the most part, is highly managed. Unmanaged areas tend to have very little in the way of larger wild animals because either they are poached out or the animals die off because populations grow too large and are then affected by drought or disease. If there were fewer people, less human settlement, and no fences, these die-offs would be offset by better conditions in other regions, and animals would later migrate from high-population areas into decimated areas once the latter were ecologically restored naturally.
So, the difficult decision was made to put the large white male rhino down. A permit from the government was obtained. And then the people managing the reserve decided, legally and as per the permitting process, to allow a hunter to put the animal down, which would have the same final effect but produce several thousand dollars in funds for the conservation program. The fee in that case was, if I recall correctly, $10,000.
I spent an evening listening to the story of how that went, told to me by the ranger who was tasked with getting the hunter and the rhino in the same place. It would have been his job to put the rhino down had the decision not been made to bring in the hunter, and he did not relish the idea either way. As he told me the story of how the hunt went, he paused a few times to cry. This, the killing of the rhino in any manner, was something he did not want to do, even though he agreed that it had to be done.
It would be irresponsible for me to relate the details of what happened, but I’ll tell you in private if you buy me a beer. I can say a little about it. After several days of tracking the rhino, stopping several times for meals and other refreshment, the hunter was finally brought to a point where his quarry was visible and in range. He took a couple of shots but missed. The ranger was ready the whole time to dispatch the animal with a good shot in the event that the hunter merely wounded it. In the end, the ranger shot the rhino, and photographs were taken. If I recall correctly, there was no trophy; I’m pretty sure that would have been illegal.
The $10,000 was employed usefully and made a difference.
I’ve spent considerable time on rhino reserves in this area, and with the people who run them. I have never been to a rhino reserve in Namibia but I have met people who worked in that country on conservation, and I’ve worked in a reserve on the Namibian border. I can promise you that there is not a single person involved in rhino conservation in the region who wants to see any rhino put down for any reason, but sometimes, apparently, it has to happen.
Some of the responses people have had to the Namibian black rhino killing seem to lack a sufficient understanding of the situation. This is perceived as a bad thing to do primarily for two reasons. First, it is wrong to kill an endangered animal. This is a bit naive because a given rhino is not endangered; all of them are. Being endangered is something that happens to a species, not an individual. A given animal may be of great value to the perpetuation of the species, while another may be a detriment to conservation efforts. The second common response is that the rhino should just be left alone. In the case of the white rhino mentioned above, that was not an option. The idea that leaving the rhinos alone is untenable given the current situation of human-animal conflict, ecology and climate, and habitat loss. The only places where there are rhinos at all in Africa are places where management is intensive. Sometimes intensive management means taking down an animal.
Namibia puts down a small number of black rhinos every year, about three. These are usually hunted but the permits are not issued outside the country. This particular case is the first time that has happened, and the amount of money being raised is considerably more for that reason. The black rhino being hunted is a “geriatric male” who would normally be earmarked for being killed as part of the conservation program. Not all of the people involved in Namibian conservation think things should be done this way, but generally, those that do not agree are hard pressed to propose alternatives.
It is certainly reasonable to question whether or not sports hunting should be allowed at all, or if specific highly publicized hunts like that of the Namibian black rhino should happen. Even if animals need to be hunted out of a given area for population management, this can be done as part of wild game harvesting, for the most part. Having said that, there is a counter-argument. You can’t really incorporate large older sterile and ornery rhinos in the meat trade very easily. And, of course, there is the money. I think one of the things that troubles people the most, and that troubles me and the ranger who told me the story of the white rhino, is the strong contrast between a big game hunting mentality and a conservation mentality. Even if it can be argued that a great deal of effective conservation occurs in the context of maintaining hunting as a sport, the point of view of big game hunters and conservationists is often dramatically different.
My opinion on the matter is that the rhino should not be put down, but probably has to be even if I don’t like the idea. I’m happy to see $350,000 put into Namibian rhino conservation … that will go a long way … but I think there is a bigger problem here. $350,000 is nothing at the international level for conservation of rhinos. It simply should not be the case that creating this sort of spectacle is necessary to fund black rhino conservation at this level. It is not OK that $350,000 is small change for some lucky hunter, but a huge sum for conservation. That is the problem.