A new U.S. rule went into effect this week that—after years of legal wrangling—places limitations on hunting of three critically endangered African antelope species: the scimitar-horned oryx (Oryx dammah), addax (Addax nasomaculatus) and dama gazelle (Nanger dama). Although almost nonexistent in their homelands, thousands of these animals have been raised in captivity and now live on private ranches in Texas.
When the three species were first protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2005, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) added what is known as a "blanket exception" that allowed captive-bred animals to be hunted on private ranches. The animals are highly valued by hunters and routinely fetched prices of $5,000 or more from people looking for "exotic" trophies.
The logic behind the blanket exception was simple: the private hunting ranches had bred so many of the endangered antelopes over the years that they had, according to FWS, "contributed greatly to the conservation of these species." Conservationists, however, argued that the blanket exception was a violation of the intentions of the ESA, which normally prohibits hunting of endangered animals. The courts, after much back and forth, eventually agreed, and in January the FWS published a new rule that requires individuals "who possess these three antelope species and wish to carry out otherwise prohibited activities, including interstate or foreign commerce, import, export, culling or other forms of take, [to] obtain a permit or other authorization." That rule took effect on April 4.
Ranchers have been arguing for years that removal of the blanket exception would also remove any financial incentive for them to keep the antelopes alive on their lands. When I wrote about this subject in 2009, one rancher commented on my story: "Since we can't hunt and eat them anymore, the ranch I work on will now be forced to stop its breeding program and exterminate the remaining stock as feral pests." Many other ranchers have said that they would go so far as to kill off their stock or release them into the wild—actions FWS points out are illegal under the ESA.
The industry's main spokesperson is Charly Seale, executive director of the Exotic Wildlife Association, who told the Associated Press that many ranches, his own included, have sold off their antelopes. Seale also said that the average price tag for hunting the animals has already dropped 50 percent and will further plummet now that the new rule has taken effect.
But that's the thing: the new rule still allows hunting of these three endangered species. Ranches just need to apply for two permits first, one to register captive-born wildlife, which costs $200 and lasts for five years, and another allowing "culling" and interstate traffic, which costs $100, lasts one year and has a rapid-renewal process. It is still legal to own and breed the animals even without a permit. FWS has promised that the permit process will take fewer than 90 days, and the agency aims to reduce that to 60 days or fewer. (The full FWS's FAQ on the process is here [pdf].)
Unfortunately, that's apparently too much government intrusion for some property rights–conscious Texans. Seale told the AP that only 10 percent of the ranches that currently hold these antelope species have applied for the permits. "Ranchers in this country are very private-property individuals," Seale told McClatchy Newspapers. "We bought the animals with our own money and they're telling us what to do with them. They are not anybody's animals but ours." FWS spokesperson Vanessa Kauffman told McClatchy that approximately 50 ranches out of the 400 that belong to the Exotic Wildlife Association have applied for permits, half of which have already been approved.
Yes, most ranches are purposefully getting out of the antelope business rather than paying a few hundred dollars and filling out a couple of forms. Seale told both the AP and McClatchy that this is the beginning of the end for exotic antelopes in Texas, saying the herds of thousands of animals will soon shrink to fewer than 1,000.
Ranchers and hunters accuse conservationists of dooming the three species to extinction in the name of ideals. Friends of Animals, the organization that filed the lawsuits that inspired the new FWS rule, says breeding rare animals solely to be hunted is not conservation. "It's merely commercial exploitation in a strange, macabre touristy world," Friends of Animals Vice President for Legal Affairs, Lee Hall, told McClatchy. In January the organization's president, Priscilla Feral, told CBS's 60 Minutes that she would rather see the animals not exist at all in Texas than have them living there only to be hunted.
One place the scimitar-horned Oryx won't disappear is the same place where they started in Texas: Selah Bamberger Preserve, home of the Scimitar-Horned Oryx Survival Program. The preserve was founded by David Bamberger, who in 1980 devoted more than 240 hectares of his 2,225-hectare ranch to the animals, which were gathered there from zoos across the U.S. and Europe, in all likelihood saving the species from extinction in the process. Today, many zoos maintain captive breeding populations of these animals, but that might never have been possible if Bamberger had not stepped up first. Of course, Bamberger's ranch also provided many of the animals raised there to brokers, who in turn sold them to Texas hunting ranches, which is how we ended up with this conundrum in the first place.
Meanwhile, some ranches will continue to allow hunting while also possibly going back to the courts to try to remove the new rule. "We're not giving up on these species," Kevin Reid, owner of Morani River Ranch in Texas, told McClatchy. "We're not going to get rid of them. We're continuing our plan to manage the herd and shoot the old males past breeding age. That's what we hunt."
Even though they still raise these endangered species to ultimately be hunted, not conserved, it's people like Bamberger and Reid who blow holes in the arguments of ranchers like Seale, who would rather be possessive, stubborn and spiteful than lift a finger to do anything they don't want to do. These ranchers claim to love the animals they raise and shoot. Their actions tell a different story.
Photo: Scimitar-horned Oryx by Beth Wilson via Flickr, used under Creative Commons license. Photographed at Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch, an educational facility in San Antonio, Texas