The bluish haze of cigar smoke hung over the crowd like that which would soon drift out of the barrels of their freshly fired guns. The men sat tense as if the very animal on which they were bidding was to be released into the room. Some of them sat with pearly sweat beading on their brows. Seven bidders alone had left before the bidding had begun. Slowly the auctioneer rose on to the stage to take his place behind the podium. He spoke in words of restrained and harsh excitement.
“The next item up for auction is an invitation from the former colony of Namibia to go on a once in a life time hunt. To track down one of the great majestic beasts of the untamed African savanna. A chance to pit the helpless man against the ravages of a savage land. A chance to hunt a Black Rhinoceros. Bidding will start at one hundred thousand US dollars.”
I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that this was a scene from a novel set in 1800s London. But, in fact, this was the scene late this last December in Dallas as a group of people bid for a license, granted by the Namibian government, to hunt and kill a critically endangered Black Rhino. Admittedly, I have no idea if anyone at the event was actually smoking a cigar (doubtful given public health laws), but this still seems like something you would read about from imperial England.
The ultimate winner of the license was international hunting consultant Corey Knowlton. He won the license with a bid of $350,000 dollars which the Dallas Safari Club, the organizers of the auction, have said will be donated to rhino conservation efforts in Namibia. It may not surprise you to learn that Mr. Knowlton has received a considerable amount of vitriol over the internet including death threats to both him and his family. In his own defense, Mr. Knowlton has stated that this is an issue of conservation. He has said that the particular rhino he will be hunting down is a post reproductive bull and is likely to be killed and eaten by lions without human intervention.
Surprisingly, he does seem to have his science correct. Although, after listening to interviews he has given it seems to me that he has backed himself into the correct science. There is a concept in Population Biology called effective population. This is the number of animals in a population after you remove all those too young or old to breed and adjust the number based on the genetic diversity of the population. The particular animal that Mr. Knowlton is going to hunt is a post reproductive bull that is known for getting into conflicts with other, reproductive bulls. The game wardens at the park where this particular animal is kept may very well have to put the animal down at any rate in order to protect their effective population. The conservation fact is that since Black Rhinos are not social creatures and because this individual poses a threat to the future of reproduction in the Namibian population, it is a drag on the population as a whole. In most conservation management strategies, this individual would be culled.
It feels odd to agree with the killing of a member of a critically endangered species, but the proper conservation strategy would be the hunt. However, there is still something that bothers me about this episode. Corey Knowlton is a co-host on the Outdoor Channel television program “Jim Shockey’s The Professionals”. The show focuses on group of professional hunters who travel around the world to hunt some of the world’s most difficult and elusive species of big game. The trailer for the show makes it seem tense and fraught with danger. In an interview with Piers Morgan, Knowlton stated that this hunt could “make [him] a dead man.” It may very well.
While no link has been made between the show and Knowlton’s bidding on the rhino license, I find it impossible to believe that the producer of “The Professionals” is doing anything but getting ready to shoot some nearly impossible to reproduce television. This raises one extremely important question. A question of context. If Mr. Knowlton is as dedicated to the conservation of this species as he says he is, he should go on the hunt quietly and return quietly. No cameras. No trophy. But he has already stated that he wants to bring the hide back to the United States.
Corey Knowlton, it would seem, is stuck in a past as archaic as my introduction to this article. His motivations, despite the gesture of his donation, seem to come from an old, imperialistic ideal. Nature, it would seem to Knowlton, is a savage land waiting to be conquered by humans. But the scientific fact is that humans have already conquered and subjected all but the largest systems of our planet. There is a reason that this episode has been surrounded by controversy to begin with. The issue surrounding this hunt is a question of conservation. But it is a question more of publicity than of science. The gun that Knowlton will hold could very well be pointed at the public perceptions of rhino conservation. With a record-breaking 1,000 rhinos poached in South Africa last year alone, conservation seems to be losing the battle.
So go, Mr. Knowlton. Hunt your rhino. But do it quietly and without fanfare. If you really care about conservation, you will be mindful of the wake that you leave.