Selling the Unicorn – considering Namibia’s controversial trophy auction

Most of the stories we read concerning the killing of wildlife surround the spectre of poaching, acts that accelerate the relentless march of endangered species towards extinction. We collectively condemn these practices and call for strong action to counter the poaching threat, including the strict censure and punishment of those that commit such crimes. It is difficult for us to conceive, therefore, of any situation in which the killing of wildlife could be described as a means to conserve rather than destroy our threatened wildlife populations.

Black Rhinos
Black Rhinos are highly sought for their horns

The rhino is no exception in this regard. It is one of our most ancient animals, argued by some even to represent the origin of the unicorn myth. The recent decision of the Namibian government to auction three of its  black rhinos for the purpose of trophy hunting places the endangered rhino once more in the spotlight and highlights the need for more cohesive and innovative approaches towards its conservation.

The conservation of the rhinoceros is an expensive endeavour, particularly in the midst of a rampant poaching crisis that claims the lives of over 1,000 of the animals every year, for the removal and use of their horns. Rhino horn is a highly prized ingredients within the traditional Chinese medicine pharmacopeia and can sell at over £60,000 per pound on the black market, making them more valuable by weight than either gold or diamonds.

Rhino horn is worth more by weight on the black market than gold or diamonds
Rhino horn is worth more by weight on the black market than gold or diamonds

Despite a distinct lack of scientific credibility, many Asian customers hold strong beliefs as to the ability of rhino horn to cure a variety of ailments, including fevers, rheumatism and gout. In recent years, its use has also been viewed as a way to demonstrate the wealth and success of its rich consumers and even more highly sought as a consequence of the prestige this is seen to convey. In reality, the horns are constructed from little more than the protein keratin and have remarkably similar properties to human hair and fingernails. Regardless of the validity of medicinal claims, however, the reality is that the rhino horn is a highly sought after product and thus a lucrative business opportunity for organised crime networks. Due to the incredibly high returns available from even a single rhino horn sale, these criminal gangs can afford to employ highly sophisticated weaponry and up to date surveillance equipment and, in terms of firepower can seriously outgun the authorities that seek to protect their dwindling populations of wild rhinos. As a consequence, wildlife authorities across Africa are seeking new ways to attract the amount of investment required to challenge this poaching menace and to prevent the extinction of these magnificent creatures.

If we were to travel back in time to beginning of the twentieth century, it was estimated that over half a million rhinos roamed wild across the African and Asian continents. By 1993, this number had declined by around 93% to leave the global population at a perilous low of just 2,300 individuals. Although the intervening years have seen a rebound in rhino numbers to an estimated 5,000, if the current resurgence in poaching continues at similar levels as those witnessed today, the species will once again slip towards the precipice of extinction. The black rhino numbers only 5,000 or so individuals, the largest population of which can be found in the south-western African country of Namibia. rhino poaching infographicHere, poaching levels have increased rapidly in recent years and the wildlife authorities have encountered major difficulties in generating sufficient revenue to fund the required anti-poaching measures. The traditional safari economy may provide some of the income needed, but nowhere near enough for the effective and expensive rhino protection that is required. It is for this reason that the Namibian authorities have agreed to the auction of three of its rhinos ,an exercise that could ultimately generate in excess of US$1 million (around £700,000). It is also likely to generate considerable controversy.

This is not the first time that Namibia has embarked upon such a venture, with a single rhino in May 2015 realising US$350,000, courtesy of a wealthy American hunter named Corey Knowlton. Even more recently, in Zimbabwe, the well chronicled shooting of Cecil the lion hit the global headlines and made the shooter, US dentist Walter Palmer into public enemy number one across a vast swathe of social media.

Cecil the lion
Perceptions towards trophy hunting changed rapidly following the killing of Cecil the lion in 2015

The killing of endangered animals is an emotive and highly polarised issue, one that divides opinion as it pits economic justifications against ethical concerns. The economic rationale behind the latest auction is a simple one; that the lethal removal of elderly rhinos that play no role in the replenishment of the genetic stock and, moreover, may constitute a danger to younger animals, enables wildlife authorities to better protect the species as a whole. A very rational, utilitarian argument. The opposition, however, is more nuanced and multifaceted in its response, arguing that any state sanctioned killing is wrong and that the lives of all individuals within a species should be sacrosanct.

This presents the conservation lobby with an obvious dilemma. How to balance the financial efficacy of trophy hunting with the concomitant reputation-damaging effects of any tacit support they may lend to the hunting lobby itself. On the one hand, a large cash injection is welcome in the short term, on the other, if this should compromise the ongoing patronage of regular donors then it may prove to be more counterproductive over the longer term. To discuss this further, it is necessary to consider the fall-out from previous trophy hunting episodes mentioned previously. In each case, following an initial outpouring of emotional compassion towards the animals themselves, the theme of the reaction soon reverted to what was viewed to be a redundancy of compassion (or indeed, moral turpitude) displayed by the hunters, manifesting itself strongly in their vilification on social media.

cartoon of animal tropies
A satirical cartoon by Dan Piraro playing on the egocentric nature of the trophy hunter

This included the issuance of death treats levelled against those perceived to be the ‘murderers’. This language provides us with a clue. The act of murder, in a legal sense, can only be committed by a human against another human. In an ethical sense, however, what the anti-hunting lobby perceive to be the repugnancy of the act of shooting an animal can soon be translated into a call for animal rights and an accompanying need to punish the perpetrators of such an act. In short, protest against the act itself tends to be followed by a more prolonged revenge against the actors involved, a process that can rapidly degenerate into one that is particularly vindictive and threatening.

For example, in the wake of the Cecil the lion affair, former newspaper editor turned TV personality, Piers Morgan posted the following on his twitter feed (perhaps somewhat tongue in cheek) ‘I’d love to go hunting for killer dentist Dr. Walter Palmer, so I can stuff and mount him for my office wall’. Within days this tweet was shared 26,000 times and, across social media outlets the language employed against the hunter became increasingly more aggressive and vitriolic. The plight of the lion, although far from forgotten, soon became a secondary theme of the postings. Such examples highlight the increasing power and reach of social media and hint at the extent to which it is rapidly usurping the conventional media in framing discourse on such controversial issues. The hunting lobby responded with the claim that they were also conservationists and that their investment did more to protect wildlife than the reams of spurious charges levelled against them suggested. What emerged was an impasse, a debate that had become so polarised that it precluded any opportunity for dialogue between the disputing factions, leaving many conservation interests eager to sit back silently and wait for the storm to pass. This reactionary approach, whatever the rights or wrongs of the rival positions, does little to change the conservation landscape and, as the latest Namibian auction unfolds and the hunters travel to claim their trophies, so a new storm will evolve and this is likely to follow a similar pattern to the controversies that have gone before. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this response is the fact that it detracts from the pursuit of alternative means by which to raise the much needed funds to protect rhinos, as the disparate positions become ever more difficult to reconcile.

Lisa Newton, in her 2005 book ‘Business Ethics and the Natural Environment’ lamented the irony of this position, arguing that such deeply entrenched antipathy has resulted in “the polarisation of the people best qualified to solve environmental problems”. In the case of the rhino and the trophy hunter, the passion displayed on both sides of the divide have ensured that the debate remains static, mired in acrimony, at the expense of constructive dialogue to seek solutions to what is far from a single issue problem. In order to remedy this, the rhino crisis needs to be viewed as a ‘wicked’ problem, its complexity exceeding the mere consideration of the rights and wrongs of any single dispute or act. We live during a period in which wildlife is becoming seen increasingly as a commodity and, in order to justify its continuance in the wild, it needs to pay its way. If conventional tourism receipts prove insufficient to achieve this goal it is perhaps inevitable that more market-based solutions will emerge to fill the void. While trophy hunting may continue to be one of the ‘quick fix’ income generating mechanisms employed by wildlife authorities to tackle escalating wildlife crime, it is vital that the debate moves beyond this and identifies new ways to ensure that the rhino is worth more alive than it is dead. This may occur through the increasing support of industry, maybe through a growing emphasis on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) objectives, although once more these forms of partnership remain difficult to enact due to a persistent distrust of business on the part of many conservation traditionalists. Perhaps a more palatable response may arise through the emergent field of crowd funding and the potential for wildlife investment that this may offer to offset the opportunity costs associated with the increasingly unpopular trophy hunting industry.

Whatever may happen in the longer term, it is likely that the immediate future will continue to be dominated by controversy, the decision of the Namibian government forcing us to face some uncomfortable truths. It is imperative, however, that we emerge from this impasse with a clearer roadmap as to how we can best tackle the poaching menace; ways that are more acceptable to all the actors engaged in the arduous task of rhino protection.

Dürer's famous 1515 wood cut of the animal that some believe to be the origin of the unicorn myth.
Dürer’s famous 1515 wood cut of the animal that some believe to be the origin of the unicorn myth.

Unless we find ways to better protect these most ancient animals, the likelihood that the unicorn will persist only in captive conditions or in the pages of books becomes an increasingly realistic scenario, one that eclipses our reluctance to move beyond the familiar territory of simplistic disputes between economics and ethics.