Szuhaj: The Benefits of Prize Hunting

by Ben Szuhaj | 11/1/15 6:30pm

In response to the outpouring of grief and anger over the killing of Cecil the lion in August, American Airlines announced it would no longer transport the bodies of large-game animals as cargo. While the nearly 400,000 petitioners who had put pressure on the airline giant to halt its practices of trophy transport hailed this decision as a victory, many conservationist-hunting groups — those who advocate for selectively hunting certain endangered species — felt differently.

Initially, many people find the idea of paying to hunt endangered animals repulsive. Upon deeper inspection, however, the idea makes sense. Culling the herd to preserve it is a natural phenomenon. Sick or old gazelles are the ones run down by cheetahs. Horticulturalists understand it as well — trim off the brown ends of a rose bush to produce new blooms. The same philosophy applies to how we seek to preserve and protect ever-shrinking populations of African black rhinos.

We live in a market economy, which ensures that the things we buy are priced effectively — the more wanted a good or service is, the more we will be willing to pay for it. The same logic applies to prize hunting. First, aging male rhinoceroses, ones identified as no longer being able to breed, are tagged by local officials. These males contribute to what is known as the “surplus male problem.” They fight with younger males, harass female rhinos and generally disrupt the herd. Females can only bear one calf every two to three years, so an abundance of male rhinos in a herd — especially ones that can no longer breed and are a threat to younger males — is undesirable.

By auctioning the right to hunt one of a carefully selected number of male black rhinos, the local governing body — for instance, the Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism — can rely on the market to set a fair prize for the killing of a sustainable number of animals. Moreover, they are able to reinvest the money into better protection of the animals — many of which are raised and bred on ranches in an attempt to try and facilitate the resurrection of a dwindling population.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, between 1970 and 1992, 96 percent of Africa’s remaining black rhinos were killed. They estimate around 5,000 black rhinos are left in the wild today. Populations of African rhinos were first decimated by European hunters around the turn of the 20th century. Shortly thereafter, poaching became the imminent threat to the survival of many rhinoceros species. A single rhinoceros horn can fetch up to 300,000 U.S. dollars on the black market.

Additional efforts are being made to combat poaching. This year, a San Francisco biotech start-up company announced it had succeeded in using the genetic sequencing of rhinoceros DNA to 3D-print a fake version of the horn with the same genetic profile as the real thing. They plan to flood the black market with fake horns to undercut poachers and put them out of business. This is but another example of market-based thinking combating social issues.

For most people, this idea sounds more agreeable. After all, it requires that no animal be killed. All economies, however, operate within the confines of fixed resources. Both of these answers to an insidious problem are economic solutions, which means that they require some share of those fixed resources in order to be implemented. Something must always be sacrificed to make something else, and the real problem that many people find disquieting about paying to hunt endangered species is that they feel it condones prize hunting itself. While I do not condone it — prize hunting is an exemplar of cowardice, frivolity and greed — I do believe in allowing a regulated market to set the price for the hunting of a few, selected animals. Doing so is a crucial component of a stop-gap solution to the nefarious problem of poaching.

At the end of the day, I would rather condone the killing of a few black rhinos than watch them end up like their sister-species, the Western black rhinoceros, which was declared extinct in 2011 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It was a chilling experience to research this article and discover that in light of that news, some anonymous soul had taken it upon themselves to revise every “is” and “are” in the Wikipedia entry for the Western black rhinoceros to “was” and “had.”We must ensure that the African black rhino does not suffer the same fate.