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Corey Knowlton's Dilemma: How $350,000 Can Buy the Rights to Kill One Rhino or Do More for Species Conservation Than Ever [VIDEO]

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Jan 17, 2014 04:40 PM EST
Eastern black rhino
The Dallas Safari Club's $350,000 auction of a permit to hunt an endangered black rhinoceros in Namibia has generated a heated and sometimes vicious debate over hunting as a means of species conservation, but in the days since the auction winner's name was revealed the issue has catapulted to global headline news, which some suggest presents a unique conservation opportunity itself. (Photo : Lincoln Park Zoo)

The Dallas Safari Club's $350,000 auction of a permit to hunt an endangered black rhinoceros in Namibia has generated a heated and sometimes vicious debate over hunting as a means of species conservation, but in the days since the auction winner's name was revealed, the issue has catapulted to global headline news, which some suggest presents a unique conservation opportunity itself.

After coming forward as the winning bidder on a controversial and historic auction, Corey Knowlton, who lives in Royse City, about 48 miles outside of Dallas, has had to hire a full-time security detail due to threats against his life, according to The Associated Press.

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Knowlton has been in the spotlight before, having often appeared on hunting television programs and as a host of "Jim Shockey's The Professionals" on the Outdoor Channel.

But in the wake of the auction, Knowlton has created new wave of publicity, which many say he should use to further the conservation of rhinos.

At the heart of the controversy surrounding Knowlton's purchase of the rhino hunting permit is whether killing an animal is a proper means of species conservation. There are only about 5,000 black rhinos left in the world, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) considers the species "critically endangered."

Namibia is home to about 1,750 black rhinos, and the government there sells five permits to hunt one each year. The funds generated from the sale of these hunting permits go to local conservation efforts, and Namibia has a good track record for its own conservation of black rhinos, according to the IUCN, which has expressed its support for the hunt through its Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group.

In an open letter regarding the auction of the rhino hunting permit, which was the first time one had ever been sold outside of Namibia, the IUCN group said Namibia's "outstanding" conservation track record and a relatively low occurrence of rhino poaching there are reasons it can support the hunt. 

"From a conservation perspective, we believe there are sound and compelling reasons to support this auction, and do not see any valid basis for opposing it," the conservation group said.

Black rhino populations are commonly imbalanced, with a surplus of males, according to SaveTheRhino.org, so hunting surplus males is a typical wildlife management strategy. The Dallas Safari Club contends that the rhino targeted for the hunt will be an older, "aggressive" male.

"Old non-breeding bulls can be territorial, aggressive and population limiting, often charging and killing younger bulls, cows and even calves. Removing these individuals can lead to greater survival of other rhinos and, in turn, greater abundance of the species," the Dallas Safari Club said in a statement.

But experts are not united on that theory.

Biologist Teresa Telecky, the director of the wildlife department of the Humane Society International, told Nature World News that, unless they are very old or sick, male black rhinos do not reach a point of infertility and the idea that one of the hunted males would be non-breeding is "not true."

Telecky said that the male rhinos typically targeted in these types of hunts in Namibia are aggressive, dormant males, which suggests they are the oldest and most healthy of the group. Rhino society is hierarchical, she said, noting that a rhino becomes a dominant male by working its way up the chain, so a dominant male is most likely very physically fit.

"Namibia takes these prime breeding species out of the population," she said, adding that doing so prevents them from passing their fitness down to future generations.

Telecky said the Humane Society International opposes the rhino hunt.

"Just speaking biologically, you need to be sure that every single member of that species remains alive and contributing to the species' gene pool," she said. "If you remove a breeding individual from a population, you're reducing the genetic variability of the population. They need the genetic input of every individual that's alive to ensure the survival of the species."

Although the sale of permits to trophy hunters, who, like Knowlton, are willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the right to hunt a rhino, does generate revenue that goes directly to wildlife conservation efforts, doing so can send a mixed message about wildlife conservation.

The $350,000 generated by Knowlton's winning auction bid will be given to the Namibian Game Products Trust Fund, which the IUCN said has a "good record in supporting rhino conservation work."

But the support of one of the world's foremost animal conservation organizations is not enough to sway everyone.

Bob Barker, the former Price Is Right game show host and long-time animal rights activist, said in an open letter to Ben Carter, the Executive Director of the Dallas Safari Club:

"True conservationists are those who pay money to keep rhinos alive-in the form of highly lucrative eco-tourism-as opposed to those who pay money for the cheap thrill of taking this magnificent animal's life and putting his head on a wall."

Knowlton has done some news interviews after his name was initially leaked following the closed door auction on Jan. 11. After his name was made public, Knowlton's Facebook page was flooded with comments. Some posts are in support of his motives, but most are fiercely negative, with people seeing no reconciliation between paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to a conservation group for the right to kill the very species it is conserving.

In reply, Knowlton said:

Thank you all for your comments about conservation and the current situation regarding the Black Rhino. I am considering all sides and concerns involved in this unique situation. Please don't rush to judgment with emotionally driven criticism towards individuals on either sides of this issue. I deeply care about all of the inhabitants of this planet and I am looking forward to more educated discussion regarding the ongoing conservation effort for the Black Rhino.

The Humane Society's Telecky said now that Knowlton is at the forefront of the issue, he has the opportunity and the platform to do more for conservation than anyone.

"He has such an opportunity to educate the public about threats that face rhinos and what we can do as a society" to help them, she said. "He would become an international hero overnight."

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