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Why Did the US Allow a Hunter to Import a Banned Rhino Trophy?

In the midst of all that, the US Fish and Wildlife Service recently issued its first permit in 33 years to bring a rhino trophy back into the United States.
Image by Lisa Williams/Flickr

We're right in the middle of a rhino crisis, with rhino poaching up more than 5000 percent in since 2007, and with this year's poaching count already on track to top last year's total of 668 dead rhinos in South Africa alone. In the midst of all that, the US Fish and Wildlife Service recently issued its first permit in 33 years to bring a rhino trophy back into the United States.

So while wildlife agencies, including the FWS, are fighting to stop the rhino trade, FWS has suddenly granted an exception to black rhino's Endangered Species Act protections banning trade that have been in place, without exception, since 1980. (That's not to mention international bans put in place under the CITES treaty.) John R. Platt at Scientific American has a solid breakdown on the story that I suggest reading; essentially, a rich American paid $215,000 to kill a black rhino in Namibia in 2009, and because Namibia has used those funds for a successful rhino conservation program, FWS granted the exception to its rules.


Black rhinos are endemic to east and southeast Africa, and are distinct from the white rhinos being hunted in South Africa. This is important because while the white rhino has a total wild population in the range of 20,000 or so, there were only 4,880 black rhino at the end of 2010, split across three subpopulations. That low number—and that the population's 1995 low of 2,410 individuals was down more that 97 percent since 1960—led the IUCN to list the black rhino as critically endangered.

The FWS argued that its import exception, announced in late March, was due to the fact that Namibia, where the rhino was shot, is home to a successful rhino conservation program, to which said American hunter gave $175,000 of his fees, according to Platt. That black rhino conservation is working is true, to an extent—while black rhinos have doubled in the last 18 years, they still exist in critically low numbers. And in the middle of so many people, including Fish and Wildlife officers, spending time, effort, and money trying to convince the general public that rhino poaching is a crucial problem, suddenly allowing a guy to import the rhino he shot four years ago is goofball.

I understand the logic FWS is trying to go with here. As I've written before, hunting can be an excellent conservation tool, a fact that a lot of people don't like to admit. The truth is that conservation efforts cost a ton of money, and hunters spend a lot of money to protect lands they hunt on. And sure, FWS is right: $175,000 is a ton of money for rhino conservation efforts in trade for one individual, as long as the money's going to the right people. In this case, FWS said in a statement that it had vetted the program fully:


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.

That, at the very least, helps ease one of the problems I have with big game hunting: a lot of programs are poorly managed, allowing too many kills based on poor population data, charging too little for a kill to make a difference, or simply allowing corruption to take away any benefit a hunter could bring. (By the way, that's a point that a lot of people apparently missed the last time I wrote about this.)

FWS has set an unbelievably frustrating precedent that if a hunter pays enough to a "properly-managed" conservation effort, he may get to bring his trophy home.

But when it comes to rhinos, the problem is altogether different. To its credit, FWS will still evaluate licenses for import of banned species on a case-by-case basis.At the same time, FWS is now saying it can support people paying six figures to hunt endangered species, as long as that money goes to conserving the rest of the species. Here's the thing: Fish and Wildlife has no say in the hunts themselves. The guy had no problem signing up for a rhino hunt four years ago, before FWS had ever allowed importation of the trophy.


All FWS has done now is set an unbelievably frustrating precedent that if a hunter pays enough to a "properly-managed" conservation effort, he may get to bring his trophy home. But that type of back-end incentive only serves to increase demand for rhino hunts—hey, now at least you've got a chance to bring one home—without actually being able to regulate the hunts themselves. Rather than stating clearly that no rhino can come into the US, FWS has said that now maybe you can, if your hunt fits a vague set of guidelines that any operation could claim to offer to prospective hunters.

Beyond any of that, one of the biggest problems in the rhino horn trade—and the wildlife trade at large—is that wildlife products are largely semi-legal. I've called out South Africa before for continuing to allow rhino hunting while at the same time decrying the poaching of its rhinos. It's such an asinine double-standard that you've got Thai prostitutes pretending to shoot rhinos in order to smuggle poached horn out of the country. Without standard regulatory framework, who's to know if a confiscated horn is legal or not?

That's the problem with the Fish and Wildlife decision. In many other circumstances, I'd applaud the agency for thinking about pragmatic conservation decisions—killing a lion or whatever may be unsavory to some, but if the hunting license is worth $100,000, then perhaps it's worth it, which a lot of conservation-minded folks don't understand.

But in this case, saying that the killing of a critically-endangered species is not okay, except for sometimes, is only muddying an already complex issue. Enforcement of the rhino trade is impossibly difficult, thanks to corruption and its quasi-legal status in many countries. Meanwhile, they're disappearing at an incredible clip. The only solution is a unified front—killing rhinos is bad because they're incredibly rare, their horns do nothing, and if you have one, you're getting arrested. Before this decision, the US was one of the countries where that unified front existed (for the most part). Now, even as rhinos are poached faster than ever, the US has said that killing some rhinos, even critically endangered ones, is okay.