Female black rhino in the Mara

Female black rhino in the Mara

A quick follow up to my earlier entry on the Dallas Safari Club’s auction of the rhino permit.  As I mentioned in my essay, it’s one of five permits offered annually by the Namibian government.  This event struck such a visceral chord and generated an overwhelming reaction, both pro and con … but mostly con.  I floated some rhetorical questions about the disposition of the other four permits … who bought them, who’ll hunt, etc.  But the Dallas auction caught our collective attention in a way that the other four permits never would.  Why is that?

 

The idea that the exclusive right to shoot one of the world’s most revered but endangered animals could be auctioned to the highest bidder is disconcerting in its own right, but the reality that the permit was sold for $350K is particularly horrifying.   The physical act of destruction is appalling to contemplate, but in this case the admixture of killing and money smacks of prostitution of the most insidious variety.  Simply put, it is an ugly piece of self-gratification at an obscene price.  And to add to the insult, the proponents of the hunt think they can assuage the concerns of rhino supporters by reassuring us that the $350K will further the cause of rhino conservation.  Talk is cheap.  When the hell has anyone ever demonstrated or even attempted to prove that hunting money really does advance the cause of species preservation in Africa?  I believe the DSC hope is that the money will be paid, the rhino will be killed, and in short order the whole event will be forgotten.

 

One of the great deceptions the hunters perpetuate is that they’ve actually accomplished something noteworthy by hanging a rhino head on the wall.  Black rhinos can be aggressive and dangerous, but they’re also very shy and wary.  The hunter in the field will have an entourage of armed trackers, and I submit that at no time will he ever be in actual danger.  Nevertheless, he’ll stand breathlessly by the carcass and pose for photos.  Maybe he’ll even have a video team along, capturing the whispers and tension of the tracking team as they close on the prey.  But the accomplishment is roughly the same as if he sneaked through a field in Wisconsin and eased up behind a dairy cow and drilled it with his high caliber rifle.   The glory factor is equivalent …. but friends and family back home don’t know that.  I tracked black rhinos on foot last summer in both South Africa and Zimbabwe armed only with a camera, and I was never in any real danger despite being just 15 meters or so away from the animals.

 

And to cap it all, we have patronizing comments like this from the auction winner.

 

“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 hunter is attempting to make the case that he is demonstrating his care for the creatures of the planet by hunting them.  In other words, he loves them so much that he’ll pay astronomical rates to kill them.  Educated discussion, eh?  Nice.  He also says he wants to “experience” a black rhino.   If many more rhinos are “experienced” there won’t be any left anywhere.  He should pay a visit to the orphaned rhinos at Imfolozi whose mothers were “experienced” by poachers.  This guy will probably be elected to Congress.  He seems to have all the requisite skills.

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rhino 15 jan 14

 

As I write these words there is a full on brouhaha in progress over the Dallas Safari Club’s auction of a permit to kill a black rhino in Namibia. The Washington Post reports that the permit went for a cool $350,000. The Post further relates that the targeted animal will be an older, “retired” male who has become aggressive toward other animals. In other words, he’s a “rogue” in much the same way the Smithsonian’s rotunda elephant was a rogue (see my post below on that unfortunate incident). Apparently the government of Namibia allocates five permits per year for the privilege of shooting a rhino. The Safari Club has announced that the money raised for their permit will be used exclusively for rhino conservation.

I don’t think there’s much dissent on the current state of the species. Most estimates put world-wide black rhino numbers at less than 5,000. From what I’ve seen, even the most ardent hunters would agree that the animal is under extreme pressure. Rhino poaching efforts have become increasingly prolific in recent years with the surge in Asian markets, and the methods used for tracking and destroying them are becoming more sophisticated on a daily basis. In certain East Asian circles, mystical powers are erroneously attributed to the cartilage in rhino horn. It is thought to have viable cancer curing qualities and it is widely perceived to restore declining sexual prowess in males. A single poached horn can literally bring tens of thousands of dollars. The financial temptation to assist Asian poaching syndicates is, all too often, more than poverty stricken Africans can resist.

Plenty of emotion has been infused into the auction of the permit, both in the news and in social media. It turns out that person who won the auction has a name, that name has been circulated and the man attached to it is now being barraged with messages of protest. Much is also being written about the plight of the rhinos and the ethics of the auction. In fact, it seems everyone has something to say on this matter … and that includes me. Below are my random thoughts – I’ll write them as they come to me so they won’t be offered in any kind of sequence. I promise to deliver my opinions and commentary to the reader as dispassionately as possible.

• I’d like for the Dallas Safari Club to publish an accounting of the $350K to the public. I want to see to whom the money was paid, and have access to an audit trail that follows every dollar to its ultimate disposition.
• The auction winner is being inundated with e mails, phone calls and social media correspondence. He’s getting support, but not much. Most of it is protest, along with some well-reasoned discouragement, and a fair amount of honest pleading to give up the hunt. But trust me, he will shoot his rhino. The guy paid $350K for the privilege, and even though the messages will make him stop and think, I believe he’ll go through every rationalization and contortion in the book to make it okay to proceed. But after he kills the animal … I’m thinking he won’t feel so great about it all. I wonder what his thoughts will be on the long plane ride back to Texas. Will he reflect with pride on his accomplishment … or will he consider the words of those who worked so hard to dissuade him and feel some measure of shame or regret?
• Safari Clubs and big game hunters are genuinely interested in preserving species like the black rhino. I believe that. But their reasoning is different from that of the average conservationist. The conservationist wants the animal to live in the wild and thrive (or not) as nature dictates. The big game hunters and safari clubs want the animals to survive so they’ll continue to have a supply of them to shoot. I want to reiterate that these are only my opinions, but I’m every bit as sure of the Safari Club’s motives as I am certain that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning.
• The auction winner is catching a lot of heat for his purchase, but I haven’t seen much outrage against the Namibian government. Why not? If the Dallas Safari Club didn’t use the permit then I’m sure that some other entity or person would have. Five permits equates to five dead rhinos, right? What about the other four permits? Is it difficult to determine who’s in possession of them?
• The targeted rhinos are described as “aggressive” and dangerous to other animals. If that were the criteria for shooting a creature in the wild then it would be a permanent open season on just about every species, including humans. This is just more contorted logic to justify something that inherently makes no sense.

$350,000 buys a very nice house in most parts of the United States. It would feed a sizeable African village for many years. It would also buy about 35 luxury twelve day photo safaris in East Africa. But one man allocated that sum for a single squeeze of the trigger and the “privilege” of killing one of the world’s rarest large mammals. My dispassionate assessment is that there is no logic, no reasoning and no rationale that can make this action acceptable.

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Bull elephant surviving without the business end of his trunk

Bull elephant surviving without the business end of his trunk

My favorite character in the 1997 movie Jurassic Park is the quirky Dr. Ian Malcolm, ably played by the talented Jeff Goldblum.  Dr. Malcolm is a bit of an eccentric, a devoted proponent of some mystical concept he refers to as “chaos theory.”  The good Dr. Malcolm also has the annoying habit of being right just about all the time.  In one of the movie’s most pivotal scenes he is egregiously and presciently accurate.  He rejects Jurassic Park management’s insistent assertion that the dinosaurs they’ve generated are incapable of reproduction.  After a rousing debate on the issue, he solemnly and thoughtfully declares … “life finds a way.”  Discussion ended.

The eminent Dr. Malcolm was referring to life writ large, of course.  But life on the grandest scale cannot “find a way” without isolated incidents of improbable survival.  Life persists and, in fact, thrives in some of the earth’s most inhospitable regions.  In the seething, sulfurous thermals along the ocean floor faults, 700 degree Fahrenheit gas vents into sea water with temperatures barely above freezing.  In that boiling, methane-laced cauldron that never sees even a trace of sunlight, a variety of microbes have adapted and found a way to subsist.  In the most implausible of spots, life has found a way.  Our own remarkable species, much more physiologically complex, has existed for centuries in the icy world of the arctic and in the arid deserts on four separate continents.  We too, have “found a way” in some unlikely places.

From time to time I’m reminded of life’s resilience when I’m in the field taking photographs.  In 2010 I’d just finished a long and productive day in Ngorongoro Crater and was en route back to my lodge when I drove past a bull elephant on a steep hillside on the south rim.    This big guy caught my attention for a couple of reasons.  For starters, elephants don’t much like slopes.  Their great bulk and flat-bottomed feet cause almost insurmountable balance issues on precipitous terrain.  But the young bull seemed very much at his ease on the incline.  The second anomaly was the animal’s trunk, which was visibly and curiously abbreviated.  We stopped the vehicle near him to watch and learn for a bit.   After just a few minutes in the elephant’s presence his predicament became clear. He’d lost the end of his trunk at some point in the distant past.  He was most likely the victim of hyenas at a young age, maybe lions, or perhaps even an unfortunately placed snare.  Regardless, the primary vehicle for delivering food to his mouth was completely inoperable. But the elephant had “found a way.”  By braving the steep slopes he was able to use the elevation differential to his advantage.  With the grass on the hillside at mouth level he could access the bushes and tall grass that would keep him alive.  He was nearly full grown, and judging by his body mass, he was completely healthy.  I think the photo above offers compelling testimony to his will to live.

There was another time.  A couple of years earlier I’d been riding with my friend Chris McBride on the Kafue River in Zambia.  On three successive mornings we’d seen a young male lion stretched out on the riverbank about a mile above Chris’ camp.  He related the story of the animal as we cruised past on the third morning.  The lion was apparently a creature of habit, a daily fixture on that stretch of the Kafue.  Some time ago, – certainly not recently, he’d lost the better part of a back leg to a poacher’s snare.  As the lion hobbled into the forest, Chris’ wife Charlotte told us how she’d come to admire and respect this disadvantaged animal.  She’d reverently named him Triton after the trident wielding messenger of the sea.  Triton’s case was particularly sad.  His maiming was the direct result of human malice.  By some miracle, he was physically healthy, probably having adapted to a life as a scavenger.  On three legs he would never be a hunter.  And although he was magnificent by most any standard, he would never become the patriarch of a pride and live the social existence that seems to be so central to the lives of lions.  But he was alive… and that in and of itself was impressive.

Wildlife photography is, in many ways, the study of life.  Above and beyond the desire to capture images, it is this disproportionate fascination with the creatures of the earth that keeps people like yours truly in a perpetual state of planning and preparation for the next trip.  So I’ll end this with a note of respect for the bizarre character of Dr. Ian Malcolm.   Life does indeed find a way, and the struggles of our fellow creatures must be acknowledged, understood and appreciated.  And yes …. photographed as well.

Male lion on the Kafue

Male lion on the Kafue

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