Should a globally rare and endangered species ever be subject to legally permitted trophy hunting? I'm not talking about commercial whaling thinly veiled as scientific research, or the taking of a handful of elephants from robustly growing populations to provide for the conservation of the rest. No, what has set my teeth on edge are the continuation of fully sanctioned trophy hunting quotas established for southern African black rhino populations by The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Namibia and South Africa in 2004. Lifting the ban allowed both southern African countries to cull 5 rhinos each annually, and was upheld last week at the CITES meeting in The Hague.
I have made my peace with this practice for elephants, though the death of an elephant is a powerful thing and there are stories I could relate of elephant hunts that might put you off the whole idea. There was a trophy hunt in our area when I was working in Northwest Namibia in 1997 involving an old male elephant, injured and running, with another bull physically placing itself between his wounded companion and the hunter for 20 miles through the desert thorn veld before a final shot brought the old one down. The people ate meat, the ivory was stockpiled, the European tourist paid $35,000 for the privilege, and all the elephants for 60 miles around fled to the commercial farming areas and tore up fences in their haste to get away from the threat.
Elephants across Africa number 625,000, a 50% decline since 1970; in three terrible years in the late 1980s before the ivory ban an estimated 300,000 elephants were killed in Africa. Namibia's elephant population, however, grows at 5-10% annually. In 2004 it was estimated at more than 16,000 animals, up by 10,000 since 1984 when poaching was rampant. There may be as many as 20,000 elephants in the country today. A few elephants culled will not threaten the survival of the remainder, however traumatic it can be for nearby herds. So what about Rhinos?
The justification for rhino hunting voiced by Namibia and South Africa is the same as that used for their elephant populations; good management and conservation efforts have allowed the species to rebound to the point where permitted lucrative trophy hunting for older, male rhinos can be done sustainably and help provide for the future of the species and provide benefits to community-based conservation efforts as viable alternatives to poaching. Throughout Africa, the remaining sub-species of Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) now total an estimated 3,600 individuals, perilously close to extinction in many parts of its range. In South Africa and Namibia, however, the black rhino population has doubled since the 1970s.
This looks promising, until you realize that in 1970 there were 65,000 black rhinoceros across Africa. They persist at a mere fraction of these numbers today and except for the free ranging population of desert adapted black rhinos in Northwest Namibia, the remainder are confined to private game preserves and national parks. Trophy hunting would benefit the owners of the game preserves or the government which might use the proceeds to fund community-based conservation efforts, but does not address the same impacts that local communities experience from problem elephants. I am unaware of any situation in Northwest Namibia where there are conflicts between rural people and rhinos over shared resources. There are just too few rhinos. In Zimbabwe they are dehorning all of their rhinos to reduce their value to poachers.
Namibia had 1,134 black rhinos in 2004 and South Africa had about 1,200. Together these two countries hold almost 2/3 of the total population of this endangered species. Assuming for illustrative purposes that that the rate of increase of Black Rhinos in southern Africa has been steady since 1970, that's an increase of 3.4% a year until the aggregate population doubled in 2004. That would have meant an increase of 76 individuals in 2005, decreased by 10 by trophy culls to 66. Is that sustainable for a species that is widely dispersed in isolated populations and with such low overall numbers?
Perhaps, if there is the enforcement will to prevent poaching and if management decisions are made based on ecological goals rather than revenue generation. There is a lottery for awarding trophy hunting permits for elephants in Namibia with quotas determined by what the individual elephant populations can sustain. The problem with delisting species that are doing better in one place and in grave peril elsewhere is that poaching may increase where the species can least afford to take further losses. Black market ivory in China reported sells for US$560-750 per kilo. In 1990, just two horns from a black rhino fetched $50,000, and the horns of all five remaining rhino species are part of the black market trade.
"Today, all five species of rhinos are perilously close to extinction. The rate of their decline is truly astounding: in the decade of the 1970s alone, half the world's rhino population disappeared. Today, less than 15 per cent of the 1970 population remains, an estimated 10,000 to 11,000 worldwide.
The Javan and Sumatran rhinos are near extinction."
Namibia and South Africa contend that the modest hunting quotas they have received and continue to seek would have minimal, if any impact on their populations. This puts them at odds with East African nations that tried in vain last week at the CITES conference in The Hague to repeal the rhino quotas:
"South Africa and Namibia won with 65 votes against Kenya's 15 with 11 abstentions.
Offers by Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo to pay for the excess male black rhinos in South Africa and Namibia as well as meet their translocation costs were ignored.
Benson Okita, who presented Kenya's proposal, expressed disappointment with emerging voting patterns at the CITES meeting, where he said regional blocs and political interests take center stage while animals or species that are truly endangered suffer."
I remain unconvinced that it is in the best interest of the black rhinoceros as a species for Namibia and South Africa to proceed with trophy culls when the species is still under grave threat across the rest of its range and the overall population numbers are so low. At current rates of population growth and without hunting, it will take black rhinoceros populations in Namibia and South Africa nearly a decade to add 1,000 individuals to their combined populations. They can certainly sustain that increase, but just as surely the species cannot sustain a reversal. Now is not the time for rhino hunting.