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Hunter Allowed to Import Rhino Trophy into U.S. for First Time in 33 Years

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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black rhinoFor the first time in more than 30 years an American hunter has been allowed to import a trophy from a black rhino he shot in Africa back into the country. Animal-rights groups argue that this is a precedent-setting setback for efforts to preserve the endangered species. Hunters, on the other hand, argue that this is actually a victory for conservation.

Black rhinos have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1980. As such, the import of any rhino body parts is prohibited without a permit. All rhino species and subspecies face rampant poaching for their horns, which are valued for their supposed medicinal qualities (none of which are real).

David K. Reinke, president and CEO of a laserjet printer parts wholesaler called Liberty Parts Team and a big donor to Republican political candidates, shot his black rhino in Namibia back in 2009. According to a 2010 report from Businessweek, he paid a total of $215,000 for the hunt. This appears to include a $175,000 contribution to the Namibian government’s Game Products Trust Fund, which helps to support wildlife conservation and management efforts. An organization called Conservation Force, headed by lawyer John Jackson, spent the past four years arguing that Reinke should be allowed to import the trophy from his hunt back into the U.S. Conservation Force holds the position that “that hunters and anglers are an indispensable and essential force for wildlife conservation,” and has also argued for the right to import hunting trophies from polar bears, Canadian wood bison and straight-horned markhor, among other endangered species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) granted that license in March.

The FWS issued the following statement about the decision, which I think is worth reproducing in full, as it does not appear to be posted on their Web site:

On March 28, 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife issued a permit for the importation of a sport-hunted black rhinoceros trophy taken in Namibia in 2009. The Service granted this permit after an extensive review of Namibia’s black rhino conservation program, in recognition of the role that well-managed, limited sport hunting plays in contributing to the long-term survival and recovery of the black rhino in Namibia.

The Service cannot and will not allow the importation of sport-hunted trophies of species protected under the Endangered Species Act unless a comprehensive review determines that those trophies are taken as part of a well-managed conservation program that enhances the long-term survival of the species.

Namibia has been a leader in rhino conservation in Africa, developing a black rhino conservation strategy in 2003 that sets specific goals for range expansion, biological management, species protection, monitoring and other key measures of success. As part of this strategy, Namibia authorized an annual harvest of five post-reproductive male black rhinos.

The removal of limited numbers of males has been shown to contribute to overall population growth in some areas by reducing fighting injuries and deaths among males, decreasing juvenile mortality and shortening calving intervals. In addition, the Namibian government requires hunters to make a significant contribution to its Game Products Trust Fund for any sport hunting of black rhino. Money accrued from trophy hunting of black rhinos directly funds conservation efforts for the species, and has been used to support annual black rhino counts, improved rhino crime investigation and prosecution, and to ensure the traceability of all rhino horn owned by Namibia. The Trust Fund received a contribution of $175,000 to authorize hunting that resulted in the taking of the 34-year-old male rhino.

Conservation Force’s Jackson praised the decision. “The Service is to be commended for showing good judgment on this issue,” he told The Hunting Report. “This is an important juncture in rhino conservation, when the continued increase of rhino poaching makes it all the more important to raise the funds necessary and incentivize the local people to conserve these animals. Namibia’s black rhino hunting program is a force for conservation, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife has recognized that.” According to the Hunting Report article, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) allows Namibia to hunt up to five rhinos per year.

Ironically, FWS Director Dan Ashe appeared on the television show Antiques Roadshow a few weeks after this announcement, where he discussed how rhino horns can fetch $25,000 a pound on the black market and cautioned viewers on how only a few kinds of antique rhino-horn products can be legally sold (pdf). “We want to get the message out about protections for wildlife,” Ashe said at the time. “People don’t always think about this issue in terms of the antiques and collectibles that they own, buy or sell. Anything that creates a demand for products made from endangered species can be bad news for survival of the animal in the wild, and that’s exactly what’s happening to rhinos.”

rhino hunting trophyReinke’s rhino—a member of the southern black rhino subspecies (Diceros bicornis bicornis)—was shot in Namibia’s Waterberg Plateau Park. The hunter traveled with an organization called Thormählen & Cochran Safaris, which now uses a photo of Reinke with the rhino he killed (shown to the right) as one of their main promotional selling points. “T&C Safaris Namibia trophy hunted their first Namibian Desert black Rhino with American client David K. Reinke,” their brochure (pdf) reads. “Another great milestone achieved in our ongoing quest to ‘Strive for Ultimate Perfection.’”

Wayne Pacelle, CEO and president of The Humane Society of the United States, decried the FWS permit. “Issuing this trophy import permit is a threat to rhinos, since it will now encourage more Americans to travel to Africa and start killing these imperiled animals,” he said in a press release. “It is also a very dangerous precedent, and we have to wonder whether the federal government will start issuing permits for trophies of other critically endangered species, such as the cheetah, just because American hunters desire their heads and hides as wall hangings. Where will this stop?”

FWS, it should be noted, has not opened the doors for unrestricted rhino trophy imports. The process of individually evaluating each license request remains in place. Rhino hunting is legal, to a small extent, in Namibia and South Africa, with rules varying by species.

Whether or not the fees from these hunts actually help fund conservation efforts, though, is a point of contention. Teresa Telecky, director of the Wildlife Department at Humane Society International, told Take Part that “in this particular case, the $175,000 that this fellow left in Namibia in return for his rhino is going into a general fund which is tapped for all sorts of things, including rural development, which might not be good for the species at all.”

As someone who’s been writing about rhinos for nine years, here’s my take: Hunters have a strong record of conserving some wildlife, but an equally strong record of overhunting species into extinction. With so many rhinos being killed by poachers, and so much public outcry, it seems counterintuitive for anyone to be allowed to profit from legal hunts or to legally import hunting trophies. Hunting and culling herds can be effective conservation tools when managed properly, and hunting can be used to raise money for conservation, but when so many animals are dying illegally, the costs of a few legal hunts outweigh the potential benefits. Legal hunting sends a message not about conservation, as the pro-hunting groups argue, but that rhinos are ripe for the taking. And as long as that message exists, the rhinos will continue to suffer.

Photo: A black rhino in Namibia by Alastair Rae. Used under Creative Commons license

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. whiteblackrhino 9:46 am 04/25/2013

    All of humankind have the right to see and appreciate Rhino and many of the other species that are being hunted and poached in South Africa, we must stop this madness and grow up. I am so pleased that Botswana has taken the bold step to stop all hunting, I look forward to the day when ALL the states in Africa do the same. We don’t want hunters any more in South Africa, please stay away.

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  2. 2. bsebadger 10:14 am 04/25/2013

    Your opinion in the last paragraph is precisely what I thought of as I read through the article. It does not make sense that one would allow legal hunting of a species whose population is already decimated by rampant poaching, with the asinine argument that funds received from allowing such hunting will benefit conservation efforts.
    Moral arguments notwithstanding, it is up to the supporters of such programs to show that these efforts actually work, by perhaps constructing models specifically for such small numbers of rhinos taking into account natural(breeding rates, vegetation availability, carrying capacity of the habitat, predators, etc) and artificial factors (losses to poaching, burdens of rural development, etc).
    Trimming populations of deer, pythons and wolves (to an extent) by promoting hunting… but for a species that is faced with extinction such as the rhino, I am not sure there is any scientific validity. The lives of these animals are literally priceless, and I’m not even speaking figuratively.

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  3. 3. JYK98 12:34 pm 04/25/2013

    This is such a spurious argument that steam is coming out of my ears. These are animals on the brink of extinction, and this will open the floodgate to other ‘exceptions.’ Look at the elephants – CITES made the decision to allow the sale of ‘legal’ stockpile, and it just opened the floodgate to a pent-up demand for ivory in China, and now they’re being gunned down left and right, including pregnant females. When dealing with endangered species, there can be no exceptions, period.

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  4. 4. Son of Liberty 4:23 pm 04/25/2013

    The hunting community’s contributions to animal conservation outweigh the contributions non-hunting “so-called” conservation groups by more than 100 fold.

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  5. 5. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 10:19 pm 04/25/2013

    Liberty, that article you cite starts to make some points but ends up comparing apples to oranges to kumquats to pumpkins. I have no doubt that hunters have benefited land and even species conservation; that article does not make the case.

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  6. 6. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 10:21 pm 04/25/2013

    JYK98, thanks for your comment. I agree: if a species is considered endangered, it should be considered endangered, period. Not “endangered in one state but okay in another,” not “endangered except for this particular population which can be hunted,” not “endangered but only under a certain set of circumstances.” We need to consider a species as a whole, not in slices.

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  7. 7. Mdfloyd 11:52 pm 04/25/2013

    How easy is it to recognize a post-reproductive black rhino?

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  8. 8. vapur 12:32 pm 04/26/2013

    If too many males were causing such a problem, why didn’t they just tranquilize those 5 rhinos per year and export them to some zoo?

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  9. 9. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 1:10 pm 04/26/2013

    Vapur, that’s a question a lot of people ask, but there’s no easy answer. Sending an endangered species like a rhino across international borders to a zoo requires massive amounts of money, time and paperwork. In addition, most zoos don’t have space for a large animal like a rhino.

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  10. 10. Michael Koontz 1:28 pm 04/28/2013

    Interesting topic, John. Nice article. The component for me that held the most weight was the biological evidence that hunting of this kind (a small number of post-reproductive males) actually contributes to population growth and thus the long term persistence of a population. I disagree that it doesn’t make sense to look at this particularly well-managed population as a “slice” of the whole species. If that is the management unit (a population), then decisions to increase the size of that unit should be made within the scope of that unit.

    Perhaps I don’t see the hidden costs to the rest of the species by increasing the size of this population?

    When you say “the costs of a few legal hunts outweigh the potential benefits,” which costs are you referring to?

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  11. 11. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 1:46 pm 04/28/2013

    Thanks for commenting, Michael. By cost, I’m referring to creating a public perception that rhinos can and should be hunted and killed. Too many people already perceive rhinos as fair game. Saying that some are okay to hunt and others are not sends an unclear message that hinders further conservation efforts.

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  12. 12. moorerp 3:44 pm 04/28/2013

    First, full disclosure:

    I’m an ecologist by trade and killing things nauseates me, literally. I’ve done it, and it makes me ill. And sad.

    But writing off hunting as a management tool simply because a species is endangered is an incredibly superficial treatment of all of the very important questions that need to be addressed in making ES management decisions. If Botswana can make enough money with this method to ensure the success of its rhino restoration program (which will require expanding protections for landscapes as well as rhinos) then it would seem downright stupid to work against it given the enormously difficult path to success for any ES management program. Would we really be willing to watch black rhinos slide toward extinction because we were unwilling to entertain an option that, though repugnant to us, is entirely un-repugnant to a lot of others? Put a little bit more cynically, there are always people who are going to want to kill things because they enjoy it, and there are always going to be people who facilitate it; might as well make some chicken salad with that chicken s**t.

    Having said that, at issue here is not whether Botswana’s policy of killing its ES to save them is morally or logically justifiable. At issue here is the USFWS’ decision to endorse the practice of US dollars being used in support of that policy. On the face of it, the endorsement offers nearly explicit contravention of the US Endangered Species Act. In arguing that this endorsement is not in violation of the ESA, the USFWS states that they’ve reviewed Botswana’s policies thoroughly and decided that their approach is sound. Or in other words, USWFS has decided that the $135,000 that this fella used to buy his dead rhino does more good for black rhino conservation than leaving that old male alive and in place. My response to that? That is a damned slippery position to defend, and I’d very much like to see the actual numbers and the actual calculations. Calculations that include the effect of strengthening perceptions that there’s one set of rules for rich white people and another set of rules for everyone else. Or perhaps the race-neutral perception that if you have enough money, you can buy your way to things that would land people of ordinary means in jail. Things that might just piss local people off enough that those 135K dollars are offset by an increase in poaching.

    I won’t discount the idea that hunting can be used as an effective management tool in case like this, but from my perspective, the bar for reaching the conclusion that it’s OK should be a great deal higher than it appears to have been in this case. My cynical devil (who whispers in the ear opposite my forgiving angel) thinks that perhaps the decision was affected by the thought of having to pay for an endless legal battle with some very deep-pocketed dude who really, really wants to commune with his dead rhino.

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  13. 13. moorerp 3:53 pm 04/28/2013

    Another thought; maybe where we place the bar should be informed by this philosophical game:

    “At what price would United Statesians allow someone to kill a trophy Jaguar (or insert favorite endangered mammal here) and display its carcass if the money all went directly to supporting the USFWS Endangered Species recovery program for Jaguars?”

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  14. 14. Michael Koontz 4:57 pm 04/28/2013

    It totally depends on whether the take of one jaguar enhances the long term conservation of that species biologically or not. If it decreases the chance of long term persistence, then I think it’d be hard to put any price on it. If it increases the chance of long term persistence, then the price is just a bonus toward achieving conservation goals. Just set the price high enough to keep demand for hunting that endangered species to a level that is optimal for population growth (e.g. a price as high as $175,000 when you only want 5 post-reproductive males taken from a black rhino population).
    It seems like we agree that, strictly biologically speaking, hunting can be an effective conservation tool. The issue, then, is “what is the real effect of this action on public perception?” I agree that that should be taken into account, and may swing the decision one way or another. For me, it swings toward trusting the public to recognize that there is nuance involved in these types of decisions. It swings toward trusting the public to recognize that the biologists and administrators at FWS that are involved have the experience and training to make the best decision regarding this nuance.

    My full disclosure is the same as moorerp’s!

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  15. 15. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 5:10 pm 04/28/2013

    Great discussion, folks. Keep it up!

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  16. 16. Michael Koontz 9:40 pm 04/28/2013

    So, what do you think, John? If we have people like you that take the time to spell out more of the detail in the message (that this was a biology driven management decision, not a financially driven management decision), is the message really that unclear? I think you are short-changing your ability to affect the conversation!

    If you agree with the scientific evidence behind hunting as a conservation tool in this case, then the public relations problem can be alleviated by writers such as yourself (which you did in my opinion– but I was convinced by the strength of the evidence you present in favor of this being a conservation strategy in this particular instance)

    Why do you think we can’t consider species in slices? Is it also due to concern over a potential “mixed messages” effect?

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  17. 17. moorerp 12:20 am 04/29/2013

    From Michael Koontz: “It totally depends on whether the take of one jaguar enhances the long term conservation of that species biologically or not.”

    I’m right on board with this sentiment, but it’s not really the aspect of the question I was getting at. Can you imagine the enormous fecal downpour that would result from the USFWS seriously suggesting this as a management tool for any endangered species in this country? We’d have to amend the ESA for it to be even a possibility, and if we aren’t allowed to do it here, what’s the point in endorsing it somewhere else when we don’t have to?

    That’s the part that’s got me confused; what would have been the downside of an abstention in this case? Y’know, “default position is that it’s illegal and there are some very legitimate questions about whether allowing this importation is a good idea, so let’s just be conservative and say no.”

    The ‘yes’ decision suggests that the USFWS really does think this kind of management is a good idea. They have no skin in the game; the only downside that I can think of is that Botswana loses out on some rich hunters’ dollars once it’s made clear that said hunters won’t be able to display ES carcasses on US soil. Unless, of course, they do have skin in the game, and the decision was a capitulation to avoid hassle and legal fees.

    By the way, these aren’t meant to be rhetorical questions; I’d really like to hear other perspectives.

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  18. 18. moorerp 12:23 am 04/29/2013

    Oops, don’t know why I’ve been writing Botswana, when it’s Namibia we’ve been discussing. My apologies to Botswana for the confusion.

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  19. 19. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 9:18 am 04/29/2013

    Michael, you asked for more of what I think after my quick-hit last comment (I smashed up my hand last week and typing was minimal for several days, so excuse me for that). You suggested “trusting the public to recognize that there is nuance involved” — I would suggest that you are asking or expecting too much from the public. Ivory is in demand because people around the world don’t realize that elephants are endangered or even that elephants are killed for their tusks. This was partially inspired by a small window of legal ivory trade, which inspired the current, massive surge in illegal trade. A trophy hunter (and I’ll admit, I take exception to the term “hunter” in this case, since he was led to a specific animal) paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to kill a rhino inspires locals to see dollar signs painted on the sides of other animals, which invariably leads to corruption and poaching (see Mozambique, for the most recent example). I think Gabon sent the right message when it burned all of its stockpiled ivory last year, thereby saying it will not tolerate wildlife crime and wiping out the perceived economic value of the tusks. If this animal was truly killed as a necessary step to improve the health of the general population in Namibia, its body should have been destroyed.

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  20. 20. Jose53 4:02 pm 04/29/2013

    I’m just unable to understand what pleasure can anyone get from killing a defenseless animal (yes, the fight was unfair) with no other purpose than to exhibit the dead carcass.

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  21. 21. moorerp 10:03 pm 04/29/2013

    ” If this animal was truly killed as a necessary step to improve the health of the general population in Namibia, its body should have been destroyed.”

    Has it been suggested that this was a management action taken to directly improve population health in Namibia? With what’s been published about this case so far, it sounds very much like the great majority of the benefit to the Namibian rhino population is indirect, in the form of filled coffers for the Namibian wildlife management agency, and justified because it does no harm to the general population (because the male rhino in question was “post-reproductive”).

    I mean no snarkiness by the filled coffers statement; it’s a very easy argument to make that filling those coffers is every bit as necessary for long term persistence of black rhinos in Namibia as ensuring adequate reproductive rates. For me, the question remains, did the USFWS consider the potential social/cultural pitfalls (like the encouragement of poaching that you mention) associated with Namibia’s decision to use this management strategy? And if they did, why did they allow this fella to bring his endangered showpiece back to the US? What’s wrong with “Y’know what? We don’t have to take a stand on Namibia’s wildlife management strategies, that’s Namibia’s job. But we already have a stance on importing carcasses of endangered animals, so we’re gonna have to say no on this one.”

    Or were USFWS forced to take a stand on Namibian wildlife management policy because of the legal action?

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