Editor’s Note: This is an op-ed piece written by Ben Carter, executive director for the Dallas Safari Club.
“It’s God’s job to judge poachers. It’s our job to arrange the meeting.”
That’s what a South African game ranger told me in June as we followed rhino tracks — and boot tracks — through a remote area of Kruger National Park. I glanced up expecting to see a smile, but there was none. His eyes told me he wasn’t kidding. That face, those words, and the violence they suggested, are still chilling.
The ranger stared back and slowly described the escalating trend of shoot-to-kill enforcement against poachers.
In Africa’s bloody war over rhinos and elephants, every lawman knows he might be murdered tonight. The International Ranger Federation website lists 32 African game wardens killed by homicide so far in 2013, and estimates the actual count is likely 2-3 times higher. Stressed, weary, undermanned and underequipped, frustrated by arrests that seldom end in prosecutions, more and more rangers are resorting to shooting on sight any poacher caught in the act. Deadly force is tolerated, even encouraged, by some agencies to help save the lives of their officers.
There’s tragedy on both sides of the badge. In impoverished countries, good people — including rangers — can be sucked into the temptations of poaching. Many pay with their lives.
Too much money dangles low. Powdered rhino horn is now 2-3 times more valuable per kilo than cocaine, and it’s in high demand by affluent Asians. Some believe it cures cancer. Research has disproven any actual medical benefits. But for triggermen, black-market traffickers, drug cartels, organized crime syndicates and even terrorist cells profiting from rhino poaching, the big paydays are worth wasting entire species along with anyone who stands in the way.
The ranger said if the war continued at the current pace, a thousand rhinos would be slaughtered by the end of this year, along with untold human lives that would never even be counted.
That dark prediction was still fresh on my mind in October when the Government of the Republic of Namibia asked our organization, the Dallas Safari Club, to help raise crucial funding for additional law enforcement and other rhino conservation initiatives — by auctioning a permit to hunt a black rhino in Namibia.
Most poaching is in South Africa. Namibia is faring much better and intends to keep it that way. In fact, Namibia’s black rhino population is doing so well, the country is allowed by science-based international treaties to sell up to five rhino hunting permits a year.
Biologists say these hunts are partly responsible for the increasing rhino numbers. Black rhinos are aggressive and territorial. Old, post-breeding males are known to kill younger bulls, cows and even calves. They also consume food, water and space needed to sustain the breeding animals required for species survival. Biologists call these “surplus animals” because removing them does no long-term harm to a population — and can actually help it grow.
But the people of Namibia also are part of the equation.
The country is renowned for its unique conservation model. Local communities form and manage their own refuges, called conservancies, on surrounding lands. The citizenry is allowed to sustainably use the natural resources produced there. This community involvement helped build a nationwide grassroots commitment to conservation. Since Namibia gained independence in 1990, lands under sustainable management have increased from 13 to 44 percent of the nation’s surface area. Wildlife now abounds. And black rhino populations have doubled.
Hunting provides the majority of income from most conservancies. Revenue supplements every household either directly or indirectly through community projects. Meat derived from hunting is equitably distributed to the most needy, such as the elderly and schools. Without well-managed lands and hunting, many rural communities in Namibia would fail.
DSC is honored to help support this remarkably successful conservation model, and provide more funding for rhino conservation initiatives including anti-poaching patrols, by auctioning a permit to hunt a surplus black rhino bull.
The sale will be in January during our annual convention in Dallas. We expect the permit to sell for at least $250,000, possibly up to $1 million — enough to pay the salaries of 50-200 additional African game rangers for a year!
Along with law enforcement manpower, revenue from previous rhino hunting permits has allowed Namibia to develop an unmanned aerial vehicle equipped with an infrared camera to assist in rhino patrols. Electronic and specialized security equipment, helicopter surveillance, research and other projects also have been funded. The DSC auction will supplement all of these.
This won’t be the first time our organization has supported rhino initiatives.
Since 2006 alone, to South Africa and other nations, DSC has granted more than $175,000 for a variety of crucial projects involving rhinos. We’ve helped train ranger students, provided gear and fuel for rhino protection teams, funded the drilling of boreholes to supply potable water at ranger field stations, supported rhino research and habitat programs, and more.
The upcoming auction is merely the latest demonstration of hunters’ longstanding commitment to conservation in Africa.
It is DSC’s fervent hope that with better habitat, science-based wildlife management and overwhelming law enforcement presence, more rhinos — and more people — will be spared.