For 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."

Reinke'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