The black rhino is teetering on the edge of extinction, and it has been for some time. Their numbers have dropped precipitously over the past several decades, dwindling from several hundred thousand a century ago to a couple thousand a decade ago, partly from habitat loss but mostly from poachers. Rhino horns fetch a premium on the black market, typically from practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine who believe they can cure a wide array of ailments, from snakebites to devil possession. Their numbers have recovered slightly in recent years -- there are now 5,055 according to the nonprofit Save the Rhino -- but the pressure is unrelenting.
The Dallas Safari Club is on a mission to save the black rhino, and it plans to do so in the most counterintuitive way possible: by offering up the chance to shoot one of them dead.
It's not every day that hunters get to open fire on an endangered species, but the DSC got a special permit from the government of Namibia, and a green light from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to hunt one of that country's 1,800 remaining black rhinos. The club will auction it off at its big annual convention in January.
Let's pause just a moment to let that sink in. The DSC is protecting a critically endangered species. By shooting it.
The concept isn't new. That's basically what the DSC does year in and year out, and it helped fuel the efforts of early conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt.
"The whole model of wildlife conservation, of sustainable-use conservation, is that any resource, if it has a value, it will stay there, it will continue to flourish," says DSC Executive Director Ben Carter. Hunters are often the ones who impart value to the land and keep it from being developed or otherwise spoiled.
Rarely, though, is the link between killing animals and protecting them so stark as when someone auctions off a rhino-hunting permit. Then again, it's rare for a hunting permit to be so lucrative. Carter expects the DSC's to fetch as much as $750,000, every dime of which will go to the Conservation Trust Fund for Namibia's Black Rhino.
The good that money will do for the trust fund's efforts, which include everything from population surveys to health checkups to posting guards to ward off poachers, far outweighs the damage.
"Black rhinos tend to have a fairly high mortality rate," Carter says. "Generally speaking, out of a population of 2,000, harvesting three rhinos over a couple or three years has no impact on the health of the rhino herd at all."
Since it was announced last week, Carter has heard a fair share of criticism from people who object to the idea of hunting an endangered species, but he brushes it off.
"People are talking about 'Why don't you do a photo safari?' or whatever," Carter says. "Well, that's great, but people don't pay for that."
That said, if a someone wants to cough up almost seven figures and use the permit to go shoot the rhinos with a camera, they are more than welcome to do so.