U.S. to Endangered Species Hunters: ‘Bring Your Trophies Right on In!’

New precedent set as U.S. grants permission for American hunter to import dead, endangered rhino from African safari.

(Photo: T and O Safaris)
writes about environment and energy for the NYT, Popular Science, OnEarth Magazine, and more.

For the first time in over 30 years, the U.S. government has granted an import permit to an American hunter who wants to bring his black rhino trophy out of Africa and into his living room. 

It's actually the first time any endangered species taken from the wild has ever been allowed to be imported into the country and news of the permit's issuance came out on the same day that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service representatives appear on a special episode of Antiques Roadshow to talk about the importance of ending trade in rhino horn.

Is this a dark day for wildlife lovers around the world? Or is this the first step in pumping some serious cash into conservation efforts?  Depends who you ask—and more importantly, believe. Here's the backstory. 

In 2009, David K. Reinke, CEO of Liberty Parts Team, a wholesale retailer and manufacturer of laser printer components based in Madison, Wisconsin, traveled to Namibia with T&O safaris and shot a 34-year-old black rhino bull in Waterberg Plateau Park. 

With the help of the nonprofit advocacy group Conservation Force, Reinke then applied for a permit to import his trophy back into the U.S. There are only 5,000 black rhinos left in the wild. 

The application states, "The applicant requests a permit to import the sport-hunted trophy of one male black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) taken from the wild in Namibia, for the purpose of enhancement of the survival of the species."

Teresa Telecky, Director of the Wildlife Department at Humane Society International, finds this sort of language laughable. 

"I hear this argument all the time," she says. "The money trophy hunters leave in the country will improve the conservation of the species. But whenever we actually investigate how much money and where it's going, we just can't find evidence to verify this. "

"In fact, in this particular case, the $175,000 that this fellow left in Namibia in return for his rhino, is going into a general fund which is tapped for all sorts of things, including rural development, which might not be good for the species at all," she adds. 

Telecky also pointed out that Namibia, unlike its neighbor, South Africa, has been doing a wonderful job protecting its rhinos, all without American hunters dumping cash into the country. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is standing by its decision. 

"The Service granted this permit after an extensive review of Namibia's black rhino conservation program, in recognition of the role that well-managed, limited sport hunting plays in contributing to the long-term survival and recovery of the black rhino in Namibia," say USFWS officials in a statement. "The Service cannot and will not allow the importation of sport-hunted trophies of species protected under the Endangered Species Act unless a comprehensive review determines that those trophies are taken as part of a well-managed conservation program that enhances the long-term survival of the species.”

Whomever you ask, one thing is for certain: the action does set a new precedent. 

"We're really worried that now the gates have opened up for bringing endangered species trophies into the country," says Telecky. "And not just rhinos either. Hunters have been clambering for years and years to be allowed to bring cheetah trophies into the U.S. Now, maybe they'll be able to. And in countries where trophy hunting isn't well regulated, what will happen to cheetahs when American hunters show up with hundreds of thousands of dollars and a gun?"

"The Service is to be commended for showing good judgment on this issue," says John J. Jackson, III, of Conservation Force, who has represented Reinke since 2009. "This is an important juncture in rhino conservation, when the continued increase of rhino poaching makes it all the more important to raise the funds necessary and incentivize the local people to conserve these animals. Namibia's black rhino hunting program is a force for conservation, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife has recognized that." 

Who do you believe? 

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