CAN A SPORT HUNTER be an animal conservationist? Carey Knowlton, who bid $350,000 for a permit to hunt black rhino in Namibia, claims he’s doing it to save the animals from total extinction. “I am a passionate conservationist,” he says, and the Dallas Safari Club, who offered the permit for sale, will donate the money to the government of Namibia for their continued efforts to preserve the species.

The debate on the topic has been heated, and you might wonder how there can be a debate at all: Isn’t paying a pile of money to hunt a critically endangered animal one of the things movies use to indicate when someone is a supervillain? But believe it or not, Knowlton has some wildlife conservationists on his side.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature points out that emotional responses to the situation ignore the larger issues. They claim that hunting the occasional weak rhino will make the remaining few more precious to the local community, increasing incentives to save them. Much in the same way that Rwanda sells permits to visit mountain gorillas, disrupting their natural habitat for the sake of raising awareness, the IUCN believes drawing attention to the rhinos can only help them.

Both Namibia and South Africa release 5 hunting permits every year, with purchasers receiving permission to hunt one specific rhino — not shoot wildly through the herd at large. Knowlton’s permit is for a “surplus” rhino, which are designated as male rhinos past breeding age, who often become dangerously aggressive towards other members of the herd. Fighting between males can kill females and calves in the crossfire, and studies have shown that herds with fewer males actually reproduce faster. As Knowlton says, “One of the other ear-tagged killer rhinos is going to injure it. And then either lions or hyenas are going to drag it down. It’s going to die [in] a horrible manner, slowly.”

Knowlton is very outspoken about his passion for animals…he’s so passionate that he’s hunted over 120 different species on 7 continents. As the owner of a trophy-hunting tour company based in Dallas, this is an unprecedented opportunity to hunt an animal that almost nobody in North America has hunted before. “I want to experience the black rhino,” Knowlton is quoted as saying, which reveals the truth behind his conservationist ideals: You don’t talk about “experiencing” an animal through killing it unless what you’re really interested in is the feather in your cap…or in this case, the rhino head on your wall.

It also doesn’t hurt the government of Namibia to have so much controversial attention aimed their way at a time when they’ve just been voted one of the top 10 “Places to Go” by The New York Times. Those who believe any publicity is good publicity might side-eye the government’s support of Knowlton’s efforts.

While there may be benefits to removing the dangerous rhinos and preventing them from damaging the rest of the all-too-precious herd, one has to wonder: If Knowlton cares more about the welfare of the animals than the head on his wall…why not just buy the permit and tear it up? The money would be donated to conservation anyway, and he wouldn’t be getting death threats. His eagerness to rush to Africa and bag a rhino, while painting himself purely as a wildlife enthusiast with an endangered species’ best interests at heart, is the reason the whole sale rings false.

It feels like just one more opportunity for a dude with way too much money to treat the world like his playground.

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