I can’t imagine that I would ever look at a magnificent beast like the one above, reflecting in a Namibian watering hole, and wish I had it in the sights of a rifle. Don’t think I could ever bring myself to want that huge head mounted on my living room or office wall. Nor would I ever want to cut off that impressive horn and crumble it into my tea or potion to boost my virility or cure some other kind of ailment.
I might want to have my camera along, instead, with a telephoto lens, so I could take a picture like the one above. Take the photo from a distance so I don’t disturb the beast. And sit and watch it for a while, for it is one of the rarest among the many rare mammals on our planet (no small thanks to us): the highly endangered Black Rhino. I’d like to bring home a souvenir, of course, but in the form of an image and a memory, while leaving the real thing free to roam the grasslands as long as it can. For that to me is the point of a Rhino.
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Others, however, clearly disagree on the point of a Black Rhino.
Many think its extremely condensed hair-clump of a horn is imbued with all kinds of magical medical properties, and have therefore driven the species to the brink of extinction. The rarer it gets, the higher its price, in the free market of wild animal body parts, and the higher the incentive for poachers to go hunt another one, and another, until they are all gone. Hard to blame the locals who engage in this poaching as a livelihood in an otherwise harsh thrid-world economy, when there is such a lucrative market for rhino horns.
Others would rather have the whole head, horn still attached, but separated from its torso, stuffed and mounted on a shield to hang from the walls of their dens or man-caves back in Texas. And unlike the poachers—or their local helpers—who may be trying to eke out a living, these trophy hunters are willing to pay top dollar for a chance to go shoot one of these rare behemoths in Africa. And the rarer they get, the higher the price these hunters are willing to pay in the free market of wild animal body parts.
So there is money to be made in killing a Black Rhino – either by the poachers who must do it on the sly, risking their own lives for a high payoff, or by the governments (of Namibia among other habitat countries) who control the rhino’s habitat and thereby claim ownership of the animals too, to be disposed off as the managers see fit. The money from this second group of gun-toting rhino consumers, i.e., the legally-permitted hunters, will be used (among other things?) to fight the gun-toting rhino consumers from the first group, the illegal poachers!
One group seeks to sacrifice the rhino and mutilate its dead body at the altar of male virility as dictated by an antiquated medical belief system. The other group seeks to sacrifice the rhino and mutilate its dead body for private display in a temple of male virility as apparently also dictated by an antiquated system of men showing off their prowess. One difference: the latter carry out their killings in the name of saving the species from the former’s depredations. And often enough, conservationists tell us, they are actually successful and can help save the endangered species.
Meanwhile, those of us from a third group, who merely want the Rhino to live out its natural life, obviously don’t bring enough money to the table to have much of a say in how this game of Save-The-Endangered-Rhino is played. For money, after all, is now the ultimate arbiter of all of our lives, to be used to measure everything from the value of an “old post-breeding male” rhino to the life of a poacher’s family, to the “services” provided by an entire ecosystem in Namibia. In this calculus of goods and services measured in dollars, and numbers entered into balance sheets, where is the room for any inherent right to life that that rhino might claim?
And so the Dallas Safari Club, from the great American state of Texas (famous for its advocacy of the right to (even unwanted) life in our species), is openly auctioning off the right for someone to go shoot one of these “old, post-breeding” granddaddy Black Rhinos in Namibia. And many pragmatic conservationists, managers, and scientists support this auction because it may fetch as much as three-quarters of a million dollars, or more, which can go to support on the ground conservation programs which are desperate for dollars.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a vegan animal rights fanatic nor a Jain monk who would never hurt an animal. I understand hunting animals for food, when regulated by local communities to ensure sustainable populations of the animals, or when there are too many animals for degraded habitat patches with limited carrying capacities. Hunting, culling, have a legitimate role in wildlife management, I’ll grant you, even though it would kill something in my own soul to pull the trigger on some wild creature wandering in its own habitat. Hunters have collectively, when legitimized, also contributed much to conserving many habitats and species in the US and elsewhere. But the slope between hunter and poacher is a short and slippery one, and as long as the market remains strong for the products sold by the latter, it will be difficult to let the same market forces tap the former group to help save the endangered trophy beast.
There is no market it seems for saving the Black Rhino for its own sake. All there is, in this bean-counting world of conservation in the free-market, is Philantrophy, an apt neologism coined by the geniuses at The Colbert Report. So we might as well get a dark belly laugh in, while the life of some poor old Rhino is auctioned off in Dallas:
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What, in the end, is the point of a rhino?