Rare rhino hunt prize of Texas safari club auction

MICHAEL GRACZYK, Associated Press

HOUSTON (AP) — Plans to auction a rare permit that will allow a hunter to take down an endangered black rhino are drawing criticism from some conservationists, but the organizer says the fundraiser could bring in more than $1 million, which will go toward protecting the species.

John J. Jackson III belongs to the Dallas Safari Club, which earlier this month announced it would auction the permit — one of only five offered annually by Namibia, the southwestern African nation. The permit is also the first to be made available for purchase outside of that country.

“This is advanced, state-of-the-art wildlife conservation and management techniques,” Jackson, a Metairie, La.-based international wildlife attorney, said Wednesday. “It’s not something the layman understands, but they should.

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“This is the most sophisticated management strategy devised,” he said. “The conservation hunt is a hero in the hunting community.”

Some animal preservation groups are bashing the idea.

“More than ridiculous,” Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said Wednesday.

“At a time when the global community is rallying to protect the elephant and rhino from the onslaught of people with high-powered weapons, this action sends exactly the wrong signal. It’s absurd. You’re going to help an endangered animal by killing an endangered member of that population?”

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An estimated 4,000 black rhinos remain in the wild, down from 70,000 in the 1960s. Nearly 1,800 are in Namibia, according to the safari club.

Poachers long have targeted all species of rhino, primarily for its horn, which is valuable on the international black market. Made of the protein keratin, the chief component in fingernails and hooves, the horn has been used in carvings and for medicinal purposes, mostly in Asia. The near extinction of the species also has been attributed to habitat loss.

The auction is scheduled for the Dallas Safari Club’s annual convention in January.

According to Jackson, who said he’s been working on the auction project with federal wildlife officials, the hunt will involve one of five black rhinos selected by a committee and approved by the Namibian government. The five are to be older males, incapable of reproducing and likely “troublemakers … bad guys that are killing other rhinos,” he said.

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“You end up eliminating that rhino and you actually increase the reproduction of the population.”

Jackson said 100 percent of the auction proceeds would go to a trust fund, be held there until the permit is approved and then forwarded to the government of Namibia for the limited purpose of rhino conservation.

“It’s going to generate a sum of money large enough to be enormously meaningful in Namibia’s fight to ensure the future of its black rhino populations,” Ben Carter, the club’s executive director, said in a statement.

Jeffrey Flocken, North American regional director of the Massachusetts-based International Fund for Animal Welfare, disagreed, describing the club’s argument as “perverse, to say the least.”

“And drumming up a bidding frenzy to get to the opportunity to shoot one of the last of a species is just irresponsible,” Flocken said. “This is just an attempt to manipulate a horrific situation where rhino poaching is out of control, and fuel excitement around being able to kill an animal whose future existence is already hanging in the balance.”

Rick Barongi, director of the Houston Zoo and vice president of the International Rhino Foundation, said the hunt was not illegal but remained a complex idea that “sends a mixed message in a way.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it was providing “guidance” to the safari club on whether it would agree to a permit, required under federal law, to allow the winning bidder to bring the trophy rhino to the United States.

“An import permit will be issued if, and only if, we determine that the sport-hunted trophy is taken as part of a well-managed conservation program that enhances the long-term survival of the species,” the agency said.

Earlier this year, the service granted such a permit for a sport-hunted black rhino taken in Namibia in 2009.

Pacelle said the Humane Society would work to oppose the permit.

An administrator at the Namibian Embassy in Washington referred questions about the hunt and auction to the government’s tourism office in Windhoek, the nation’s capital. There was no immediate response to an email Wednesday from The Associated Press.

“The two hot issues here are the fact it’s an endangered species, and the second thing is it’s a trophy,” Barongi, the zoo director, said. “It’s one individual that can save hundreds of individuals, and if that’s the case, and it’s the best option you have … then you go with your best option.

“Because the alternative is you can lose them all,” he said.