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Corey Knowlton's endangered black rhino trophy hunt -  more uncertainties and grounds for a legal challenge

                                                         Black rhinos are not all the same

Today, an important article was posted on the internet concerning the auction sale of an endangered black rhino trophy hunting license by the Dallas Safari Club ( – be very careful, the site has been hacked and is now equipped with a dangerous virus!). 

The license was provided by the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET). Corey Knowlton, the highest bidder at the auction with an offer of $350,000, has been much in the media recently. 

Such attention is rather unfortunate because Corey has a proclivity to say all the wrong things while guided by several principles he has learned by heart:

  • “The black rhino is a post-reproductive male. Such “grumpy” males are prone to killing females and rhino calves and must be removed from the population.”
  • “The money raised will go into a government trust fund and will be used for rhino conservation in Namibia. Namibia is a poor country that cannot afford the conservation costs of critically endangered wildlife from their own limited resources.”
  • “Conservation organizations like the IUCN are fully behind the hunt – if they support it, why should other organizations oppose the hunt?”
  • “The meat from the rhino will be used to feed impoverished communities in Namibia.”
  • More drivel along those lines. 

The article referred to above makes a number of important points (remember the warning about opening the site) including the following:

  • There has been a deafening silence from conservation groups in Namibia about the hunt. Nobody has spoken out against it. Save The Rhino Trust (SRT) in Namibia has only mentioned that they will not receive any funds, are not part of the decision-making process involved in allowing rhinos to be trophy hunted, etc. The article does mention that NGOs like SRT, while they work in close cooperation with MET, are strongly discouraged from any criticism as the MET does not tolerate any “foreign” NGO meddling in their affairs. With the underlying threat of NGO status being withdrawn or worse.
  • Therefore, the public are only able to see the “smoke and mirrors” put forward by the likes of IUCN and WWF that the trophy hunt is good for rhino conservation. 
  • There is no such thing as a “post-reproductive” killer male. It is entirely likely that Corey, or whomever he might sell the permit to for personal profit, will shoot any male rhino when the hunt actually occurs. Apparently, no individual rhino has yet been identified for the hunt and the “killer male” tag is nothing more than a sales strategy.
  • Everyone has been misled that there are about 5,000 black rhinos remaining (The IUCN says about 4,880, based on some sort of “survey” in 2011). The article also correctly and very importantly points out that the black rhino (Diceros bicornis) is actually composed of a number of morphologically, geographically and genetically distinct subspecies. One of those, D.b. longipes – the western African black rhino – was recently declared extinct. Three subspecies remain – the eastern African black rhino D.b. michaeli with about 740 animals; the southern African black rhino D.b. minor with about 2,200 individuals, and … here comes the very important bit – the southwestern black rhino D.b. bicornis (or D.b. occidentalis as some taxonomists like to call it) with about 1,900 animals left. 

The article then points out that the surviving members of the southwestern black rhino (a recognized subspecies by the IUCN it would appear mainly occur in Namibian protected areas like Etosha National Park. The others, the only truly free-ranging black rhino population in the world, occur in a desert environment and have huge home ranges. They number about 750, and it is one of these that Corey is likely to hunt.

Now let’s put that all aside, important and revealing as all those facts are. 

There is actually something much more important to consider, and this something could form the basis for a legal challenge both against CITES for handing out yearly quotas for Namibia’s rhinos and the US Fish and Wildlife Service in case they give Corey permission to import his trophy into the USA despite the rhino being listed on the US Endangered Species Act.

Let me take you through this step by step:

  • The concept of genetically unique subspecies within a species is well-accepted by geneticists and taxonomists and wildlife agencies and authorities. There are very many examples. The Asiatic lion, Panthera leo persica is recognized as a critically endangered subspecies as should be the western African lion P.l. leo. Both are different from P.l. krugeri, the eastern and southern African lion. There are many subspecies of the leopard, Panthera pardus and the tiger, Panthera tigris. Many are critically endangered. Forest elephants are genetically and morphologically different from savannah elephants. You get the point – subspecies are a recognized category of taxonomic and conservation importance.
  • Namibia’s rhinos, D.b. bicornis (or D.b. occidentalis) are recognized by the IUCN as a valid black rhino subspecies, a fact overlooked in their rush to approve the trophy hunt.
  • CITES does not want to recognize subspecies because, by their reasoning, subspecies fall within their “look-alike” category very difficult for enforcement agencies to differentiate. CITES instead “reluctantly” accepts geographic categories – for example, white rhinos from South Africa and Swaziland are listed on Appendix II (trade allowed) while all other white rhinos are on Appendix I (highly regulated, if any trade). Same with elephants – those in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana are on Appendix II and all other African elephants remain on Appendix I. CITES, therefore, does not go with accepted subspecies differentiation, seeking instead to adopt (some) geographic guidelines to regulate trade.
  • In the case of black rhinos, CITES does not differentiate between the subspecies occurring in Namibia and South Africa.  To CITES (and the IUCN and WWF who should know better) these are all just “southern black rhinos”. Hence it was easy for Namibia to persuade CITES to hand out a quota of five black rhinos to be hunted annually – the MET also seemed not to take into account the important subspecific differentiation of rhinos in Namibia. 
  •  Corey, or his secondary buyer, will likely lobby the US Fish and Wildlife Service (the licensing agency) to import the Namibian trophy into the USA (Corey says he will donate it to a museum, but that might just be one of his “promises”). The USFWS lists black rhinos on their Endangered Species Act, and every import has to be individually authorized. But the USFWS also makes no distinction among black rhino subspecies, a glaring omission.

Given the above, there are strong grounds for legal challenges to CITES and the USFWS at least for their apparent lack of acknowledgement of the concept of subspecies and maintenance of genetic diversity within a species. 

Any lawyers with a conservation conscience – here’s your chance to use the law for a good purpose? 

Picture credit: Africa hunting

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Posted by Chris Macsween at 20:59

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