Hunting a Rhino to Save Rhinos

BBC News reports today that a permit to hunt and kill an endangered Black Rhino in Namibia has been sold at a US auction for $350,000 (£212,000):

The auction was held amid tight security at a Dallas convention centre, where dozens of protesters had gathered. The winning bidder – who has not been named – will hunt an old, non-breeding male rhino. The organisers say such animals actually pose a threat to younger rhinos, which they sometimes charge and kill. All proceeds will be donated to the Namibian government and will be earmarked for conservation efforts, safari club officials said.

A black rhino seen head-on, standing in the grass at Ngorongoro, Tanzania.

A black rhino seen head-on, standing in the grass at Ngorongoro, Tanzania. (Photo by Demetrius John Kessy, CC BY 2.0 license. Links to source.)

The reasoning of Rhino hunt auctions is that trophy hunters pay large sums of money which then get pumped back into rhino conservation. It appears to work too, as rhino conservation in South Africa (the other country apart from Namibia which allows it) is doing well.

Coincidentally, I’m currently reading the book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael Sandel. Sandel is a well-known Harvard philosopher, famous for his ethics course Justice (available online for free) which was later turned into a book called Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?. (I recommend the book over the lectures, I learned much more from it.) In Moral Limits he argues that market evaluations and exchanges have a degrading and corrupting effect on certain goods and practices. In the chapter titled Incentives, he has a segment on this very issue of rhino hunting. He writes,

[The right answer] depends on whether trophy hunters are wrong to treat wildlife as an object of sport, and if so, the moral gravity of that wrong.

Once again, we find that market reasoning is incomplete without moral reasoning. We can’t decide whether to buy and sell the right to shoot rhinos without resolving the the moral question about the proper way of valuing them. This is, of course, a contested question on which people disagree. But the case for markets cannot be disentangled from controversial questions about the right way to value the goods we exchange. […] Whether trophy hunting values wildlife in an appropriate way is a moral question at the heart of the debate. Which brings us back to attitudes and norms: Whether to create a market in the hunting of endangered species depends not only on whether it increases their number but also on whether it expresses and promotes the right way of valuing them.

It’s a fascinating (and disturbing) read, I recommend it highly. There’s a video of an LSE talk/debate by him below if you want to get a taste of the book. Every time I come across these issues I’m reminded of what he says in the beginning of his Justice course, that there are “risks of studying philosophy” – it changes the way you look at the world, it can unsettle you and once you start you can’t un-learn it. (Perhaps this explains the appeal of religious dogma on how to live – it’s far easier to “do what God says” rather than learn and apply moral reasoning!)




  1. J.G. Hovey says

    There are examples elsewhere, as well. Just look at the history of whitetail deer, turkey (National Wild Turkey Federation), and ducks (Federal Duck Stamp program) in the U.S..

    The market for endangered animals already exists, even if it is illegal. I think it’s smart to find a way to turn the market towards conservation efforts.

  2. Wylann says

    I’m obviously torn, but if we could do a similar program with libertarians, I might be convinced. (I kid.)

    Adding those books to my Amazon list, thanks for the recommendations.

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