Shooting a rhino for sport seems about as challenging as shooting a parked bus. The prehistoric-looking beasts are big and not fleet of foot. They confront a threat by charging it, not running away. That doesn’t serve them well as a hunting guide and a trophy hunter get within range with a high-powered telescopic rifle to bring down the endangered animals for their heads and horns.
But despite the absence of any challenge, there is an elite class of people that will go to great lengths, and will pay a pretty penny, to shoot a rhino. Corey Knowlton bid $350,000 at a January auction of the Dallas Safari Club for the privilege of shooting one, claiming he wanted to help the species. He needs a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow him to import the rhino's body following the hunt in Namibia, and The HSUS is opposing the import allowance.
Additionally, Michael Luzich, a Las Vegas investment manager, bid $200,000 for a permit to kill a rhino and is also seeking a permit to bring the trophy into the United States, which The HSUS is also opposing.
But the high-minded talk of conservation in such circles always seems to break down quickly when there’s talk of their not being able to import the heads of slain animals into the United States. The Dallas Safari Club says it will return Knowlton’s money to him if the federal government doesn’t allow him to bring back the head.
The whole fascination with killing a rhino is bizarre to me.
"I'm a hunter," Knowlton told WFAA-TV in Dallas. "I want to experience a black rhino. I want to be intimately involved with a black rhino."
All of this farce is playing out in the wake of a major federal investigation about a rhino-killing scam that stretched from Alabama to South Africa. The owners of Out of Africa Adventurous Safaris — Dawie Groenewald and his brother, Janneman Groenewald – were charged with conspiracy to sell illegal rhinoceros hunts in South Africa (in order to defraud American hunters), money laundering and secretly trafficking in rhino horns. The operation was run out of Alabama and George Beck, the same U.S. Attorney who so deftly handled the prosecution of a ring of illegal dogfighters I wrote about last week, is handling the criminal charges against the alleged perpetrators.
According to a statement from the federal authorities, the defendants are charged with selling illegal rhino hunts by misleading trophy hunters. The defendants are alleged to have failed to obtain the necessary permits required by South Africa, and to have cut the horns off some of the rhinos with chainsaws and knives. The indictment alleges that the defendants then sold the rhino horn on the black market.
Eleven illegal hunts are detailed in the papers filed in federal court, including one in which the rhino had to be shot and killed after being repeatedly wounded by a bow, and another in which Dawie Groenewald used a chainsaw to remove the horn from a sedated rhino that had been hunted with a tranquilizer gun.
We are grateful to the federal authorities for breaking up this scam and this unconscionable conduct, with people on two continents conspiring to profit from and participate in trophy hunting and rhino horn sales.
The whole business of the commercial killing of rhinos, at a time when the species is at risk of extinction, needs to end. Last year more than 1,004 rhinos were killed in South Africa alone and this year’s tally as of October 24th was 899 – that’s three rhinos poached each day. At this rate, the 2014 rhino poaching figure for South Africa will be 1,100, exceeding last year’s record-setting poaching level.
News reports have quoted a USFWS spokesperson Gavin Shire as saying that the agency is applying extra scrutiny to the import permit requests because of the rise in poaching. The USFWS should deny the permits to the Safari Club hunters and follow that the first rule of conservation, as stated by Aldo Leopold: preserve all the parts. And let’s hope that U.S. Attorney Beck is able to deliver meaningful sentences to the ringleaders of the Out of Africa scam, just as he did with a group of miscreant dogfighters in his home state.