Corey Knowlton, center, hunts a black rhino in Namibia.
Hunter pays $350,000 to kill endangered black rhino
03:59 - Source: CNN

Jeffrey Flocken is the North America Regional Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), an organization dedicated to protecting wildlife. All views expressed in this commentary are solely his. For more about the debate over big game trophies, watch CNN Films’ “Trophy,” premiering Sunday, January 14, at 9pm ET/PT, on CNN.

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Corey Knowlton bid $350,000 for a permit to hunt and kill a black rhino in Namibia

The hunter says it's a vital component of Namibia's effort to save the animal from extinction

Jeffrey Flocken: This does not make sense morally, economically, biologically

CNN  — 

Killing endangered wildlife to save it is just wrong.

It does not make sense morally, economically, biologically, or from a conservation-incentive point of view. It is a philosophy that has no place in modern conservation.

And even though it is Americans who constitute a major percentage of the world’s trophy hunters, this small, wealthy club of big game sport hunters do not embrace the values of the vast majority of other Americans who appreciate the many non-exploitative values of wild animals.

For example, a Synovate eNation poll in 2011 found that of those responding to its survey, 70.4% of Americans would pay to view lions on an African safari, while only 6.6% would pay to hunt them.

And opposition is not just theoretical – a poll conducted by the Beekeeper group on behalf of the IFAW in 2014 found that 82% of Americans surveyed support banning lion trophies, and 83% support banning elephant trophies.

Benefits exaggerated

Economically, the actual benefits accrued by local people from the hunts have been found to be exaggerated or practically non-existent in the case of trophy hunted animals like polar bears in Canada, according to a report for IFAW by Economists at Large. And in Tanzania – one of Africa’s top sport-hunting destinations – an estimated 3-5% of hunting revenues are actually shared with fringe communities, according to a report by Hassanali Thomas Sachedina of St. Anthony’s College, University of Oxford.

Jeffrey Flocken

Conversely, eco-tourism has become such a critical line item in the economies of some African countries that some governments are taking steps against sport hunting in order to protect this more vital industry.

Following Kenya’s lead, which banned trophy hunting in 1977, countries like Botswana have implemented country-wide bans on certain or all big game sport hunting, noting that species are showing significant declines, while eco-tourism is a more important source of revenue to their nation.

From a biological perspective, the long-term survival of an imperiled species is extremely complicated; trophy hunting not only flies in the face of a precautionary approach to wildlife management, but in some cases it has also been found to undermine it.

A case in point: hunters are not like natural predators. They target the largest specimens; those with the biggest tusks, manes, antlers or horns.

Survival of the weak

It is part of a trend called “evolution in reverse” or “survival of the weak,” and scientists have pointed out that sport-hunted populations of species like bighorn sheep now have smaller horns than those of 30 years ago, and after decades of poaching and trophy hunting giant-tusked elephants are a rarity in the wild. Is this good or sustainable conservation? Clearly not.

Additionally, there can be deadly impacts from a trophy hunts beyond just the individual killed. Research has shown that when a dominant male lion in a pride is killed, the social group is disrupted and a cascade of deaths can result within the pride: young males killed fighting for the dominant position, cubs killed when a new dominant male takes over, and females killed protecting their cubs.

And finally the idea that trophy hunting brings a conservation incentive to local people to save a species is not only counter-intuitive, it is a logical fallacy.

When a species’ greatest value is as a dead trophy, its days will inevitably be numbered, just as they are when the value of their parts – like ivory tusks, tiger skins, or rhino horn – make protection from poachers nearly impossible.

This case is illustrated by the U.S. hunting group, the Dallas Safari Club, auctioning off the right to kill one of the last black rhinos for over a quarter million dollars in the name of “conservation.”

Animal price tag

The sale sent a message to the world that vainglorious hunters will pay almost anything to kill something exceedingly rare – in this instance, a species already being wiped out for the value of its horn. Such a message puts just another price tag on a rare animal’s already imperiled head.

READ: Texas hunter claims his rhino

What actions can governments take that better reflect the conservation and animal welfare values of their citizens? They can start by stopping trophy imports of critically endangered species like the black rhino and also threatened species like lions – which have faced a 75% population decline over the past 50 years in the savannah habitat that sustains African lions.

Australia has recently banned the import of trophy hunted lions, and the U.S. is in the process of developing a new system for reviewing lion imports.

Meanwhile the European Union has just adopted stronger restrictions on trophy imports for a number of species including lions, while the U.S. has decided to stop trophy imports of elephants – a species being virtually wiped out by poachers – from Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

These governments seem to be catching on to what the rest of the world already knows – that killing animals to save them is not conservation, it is just wrong.

The best message concerned citizens can send is that these majestic but imperiled animals are worth more alive and thriving in the wild than as dead trophies mounted and hung on a wall.

That is a conservation idea that makes sense.