Extinction v. Captive Conservation: The Fate of the Three Amigos

The scimitar-horned oryx was declared extinct in the wild in 2002 photo: Exotic Wildlife Association

The scimitar-horned oryx was declared extinct in the wild in 2002
photo: Exotic Wildlife Association

Recently, in a legal ploy designed to undermine the “Three Amigos” provision of the Appropriations Act of 2014, the Friends of Animals (FoA) filed a federal lawsuit to try and stop the conservation of three endangered antelope species.

In a legal and legislative skirmish beginning in 2005, conservationists and animal rights activists have battled over the fate of three endangered antelope. It began when US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) added the scimitar-horned oryx, dama gazelle and addax (a|k|a the Three Amigos) to the Endangered Species list– but allowed an exemption for legal trade and hunting of captive bred specimens here in the United States. FoA and other animal rights activists filed a federal lawsuit hoping to overturn the exemption and block these captive conservation efforts. Subsequently, in 2009 they got their wish, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia struck down the FWS exemption, putting the Three Amigos in jeopardy of extinction once again. Then, in January of this year, the Appropriations Act of 2014 was passed and signed into law by President Obama with a “Three Amigos” exemption that once again cleared the way to conserve the endangered antelope through captive breeding.

Addax photo: Fossil Rim

photo: Fossil Rim

This is about more than legal and political wrangling. It is about endangered species conservation on a grand scale. It is about hunters and ranchers turning species away from the brink of extinction. Today, thanks to the dedication and sound husbandry of ranchers, there are thousands of scimitar-horned oryx and addax, and a growing population of dama gazelle, thriving on tens of thousands of acres in Texas. This private model of conservation has been a resounding success and has not cost the taxpayer a dime. It is an unprecedented conservation safety net that has been villanized by its critics for what appears to be purely ideological reasons.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and other members of the animal rights industry stand for the proposition that hunting is morally wrong in all circumstances. HSUS has characterized hunting on a game ranch as a “canned hunt,” falsely conjuring images of blood thirsty men slaughtering trapped animals from the backs of pick-up trucks. Michael Markarian, HSUS Chief Program and Policy Officer, said, “hunters can bag endangered animals in drive-thru killing operations.” But when 60 Minutes did a segment on hunting on Texas game ranches, they did not find that Markarians’ comments rang true. In the spirit of “fair chase,” the hunter that was followed by the 60 Minutes crew lost an opportunity when the antelope eluded him in heavy cover.

Dama gazelle photo: Exotic Wildlife Association

Dama gazelle
photo: Exotic Wildlife Association

“Fair chase” is the opportunity to avoid being found, and once found, the ability to detect and escape the hunter. ~Charly Seale, Executive Director, Exotic Wildlife Association 

Charly Seale of the Exotic Wildlife Association (EWA), says that only a small percentage of surplus antelope on ranches are made available to hunt. Some are sold to other ranchers. Others are sent back to their countries of origin in an attempt to reintroduce them to their natural habitats.

Those that are hunted are carefully selected. They live in wide open areas, often on thousands of acres, much as they do in their native range. A hunter must track and locate the proper animal just to have an opportunity.  The EWA has a Code of Ethics that upholds the concept of “fair chase.” There is no guarantee of success, and the antelope can and often does, elude a potential hunter.

The point is that because of hunting, these antelope have a tangible economic value that makes it possible to populate large herds right here in the US; a private model of conservation that costs the taxpayer nothing and demonstrates the commitment to preservation of species by hunters and ranchers. These programs have demonstrated their success already by preventing extinction, by making animals extinct in the wild, prolific in captivity.  Make no mistake, hunting is conservation.

"A lifetime struggle against the depravity of recreational hunting.” ~Priscilla Feral, President FoA

“A lifetime struggle against the depravity of recreational hunting.” ~Priscilla Feral, President, Friends of Animals

In the new book The Invisible Ark: In Defense of Captivity, Dave and Tracy Barker write of the inherent value of captive breeding as a conservation safety net. They espouse the principle that 21st century conservation depends upon creating economic incentives for local communities to preserve species. They denounce what they call the “Mantra of the Damned,” now adopted by some animal rights activists, which stands for the ideology, “better extinct than only in captivity.” Priscilla Feral, president of FoA embodied that dark sentiment when Lara Logan of 60 Minutes asked her, “…you would rather they [scimitar-horned oryx] not exist at all?” Feral responded, “not on a ranch in Texas.” To her, extinction of an entire species is preferable to thriving on hunting ranches in Texas.

The main driver for conservation here is a passion for these antelope. For the ethical hunter and conservationist, it would be a travesty of justice for these animals to disappear when there is the power and the means to save them. To forsake these magnificent creatures, and deprive our children of the opportunity to see them, just because some don’t philosophically approve of the only means of conservation that has proven to work, is unfathomable.

“For more than a century, [hunters] have been the backbone of conservation in this country…” ~Sally Jewell, Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior – March 4, 2014

In a private economically driven model of conservation, hunters and Texas game ranchers have brought these magnificent antelope back from the edge of extinction. The Three Amigos have been given economic value that has paved the way for conservation. The EWA is working to return a dozen scimitar-horned oryx to their native range of Senegal in 2015. Another ranch and wildlife park, Fossil Rim, spends $250,000 a year returning scimitar-horned oryx and other endangered species to their native range. Thousands of tourists, school groups, scouts and church groups visit Fossil Rim every year. None of this will be possible if FoA succeeds in overturning the Three Amigos provision of the Appropriations Act of 2014.

34 thoughts on “Extinction v. Captive Conservation: The Fate of the Three Amigos

  1. Excellent article Andrew! I was pleased to see that quote of Sally Jewel, I only hope she comes to see the parallels to captive reptile farming as a conservation tool and re-considers expanding Lacey Act use to squash the hobby and business of herp keeping.

  2. Reblogged this on rboschen3 and commented:
    Excellent article Andrew! I was pleased to see that quote of Sally Jewel, I only hope she comes to see the parallels to captive reptile farming as a conservation tool and re-considers expanding Lacey Act use to squash the hobby and business of herp keeping.

  3. Thanks Rick! I’ve been saying it for the last decade, “captive breeding is a conservation safety net.” You should read the Barkers’ new book: The Invisible Ark: In Defense of Captivity.

  4. The name “Friends of Animals” is horrifyingly ironic in this case. What sort of “Friend” lets its friends go extinct? With friends like these, as the saying goes….

  5. Hallelujah! The Voice of Reason. The Voice of Logic. Noah was right, after all. (And Durrell.) Thank you for the references too. A rallying cry. I have worked in this area for 30 years and always find myself banging my head against PETA-type brick walls and the zealots. Pro-captive breeding practitioners really need to rally together and perhaps copy some of the zealots’ organizational tactics and skill sets and fundraising. Problem is, breeders tend to be busy working at their jobs or their hobbies, eyes on the job at hand… and not watching their backs. Busy making an enterprise (governments rarely foot these bills), just like farmers. And like farmers, not unionized or radicalized (as is the Opposition.) We have a rallying cry. We should heed it and use it. Thank you Andrew. I’m trying to locate the Barkers’ work in defence captive breeding. (It goes to show that we are on the back-foot though, that something as clearly useful as the captive breeding tool even needs defending! I know from personal experience that the Gouldian finch is recovering in Australia because of it and due to breeders such as Mike Fiddler.)

  6. It’s scary that it can come down to one or two ‘Ferals’ deciding what will be. Who gave Feral the right to be the World’s spokesperson on this. She didn’t get my vote. But we see it time and time again, that a city-based lynch mob decrees what will be. I reject Feral, her position and everything she and her mob stand for… “better extinct than only in captivity.” Unfathomable arrogance. When she and her mob take that stance, they bind us all to the consequences of their inane position and actions. Feral and Ahab would ride the Pequod into the abyss, but taking us and those doomed species with them. So wrong on so many fronts.

  7. Good article Andrew. Conservation thru captive breeding, done properly, is both a safety net and facilitator to effective reintroduction of imperiled animals back into suitable habitat. Glad to read the rebuttal to the canned hunt scenario that is based on opportunity to harvest, not guarantee, and a requirement of fair chase. Wish all private game ranches would follow suit, but only the miscreants get the bad press and public attention. A good follow-up article would cover the state and success thus far, if any, in the restoration of herds of these antelope back into their native range. Too bad some of the less charismatic declining species cannot get this same sort of private sector assistance.

    • I’m not trying to change the minds of the crazy people… that will never happen. I’m just trying to lend some balance to the narrative for the people of reason that might not know what is happening, or may need a better understanding of effective conservation strategies…

  8. While captive breeding and demand for a species can be important components of wildlife conservation, we should keep in mind that animals raised in a non-native setting are likely to become slightly different than their non-captive conspecifics over multiple generations. Interactions at community and ecosystem levels are difficult to recreate in ex-situ environments, but they are crucial to successful reintroductions.

      • You have a point SuperbStarling, however, most breeding is done on a genetic or free choice basis in a herd situation. These animals won’t become domesticated because they are not being selectively bred for the same types of traits you would want in a horse or cow. On a multi- acre plot of land, they still need to keep defensive capabilities, foraging behavior, agonistic behaviors, etc. Reintroduction after multi-generations can be done with the correct plan in place (release pens set-up in their native habitat prior to release, for instance). Look at the Arabian Oryx for example. Scimitar-horned oryx have been bred in the US and taken to Chad for a similar plan. Black-footed ferrets have also been bred for multiple generations and are now back in the wild. As long as we are not selectively breeding animals to reduce their “wild” tendencies and allowing them to behave as normally as possible in a captive setting, most species are remarkably adaptable. Unfortunately, I think the larger concern is the huge decrease in healthy native habitat for most of these species to be reintroduced to. This was a great article.

  9. If there is any wild stock left, then contribution of gametes be even one individual into the captive population helps tremendously. In the case of extinction in the wild, then a comprehensive genetic management plan utilizing all animals and tracking contribution to progeny is essential to maintaining all genetic material available in the population.

    • Michelle, that actually is not so true for birds, though it might be for mammals. The captive-bred stock of species like the Thick-billed Parrot in Arizona and the ‘Alala (Hawaiian Crow) in Hawai’i have proven to be disastrously naive and suffer far higher rates of predation and other mortality than their wild kin. The Parrot reintroduction program has been abandoned, as far as I know, and the ‘Alala program has been on hold since 1999, though I’ve seen it suggested that it might resume this year. This might not be particularly relevant to the issues presented in Andrew’s article, but in the broader sence is important to keep in mind.

  10. I am appalled at the view of the FoA president for preferring death of the species to captive breeding. She is either ignorant of how much hunting and captive breeding contribute to conservation efforts or just plain blinded by her hatred of hunting. I am disappointed in the fact that the conservation of an endangered species was almost halted because of ignorance and single-mindedness of a group that should be acting to preserve our extant fauna, not acting against it! I can understand the point of view that hunting an endangered species should be avoided, and the view that animals belong in their native range in the wild, but the circumstance dictates otherwise. Filing a lawsuit was the exact wrong thing to do, and it shows the selfish attitude of FoA because a “win” for them would assure hardship and possible extinction for the Three Amigos.

  11. In my experience, certain environmental or conservation groups are only interested in litigation. It is these groups that tie up federal and state agency resources in petition processes. I have found that, once the species has been listed, these groups do nothing to engage in fund-raising or the implementation of the actual conservation measures required to reverse the threats behind the declines and benefit the species.

    • I agree with you Tom. Some of these orgs that claim to be conservation groups are really animal rights groups that use high profile conservation issues as a fundraising platform. Often their sole “engagement” on conservation issues is to use litigation as a way to institutionalize and fund their ideological policies; very little if anything is put into real conservation.

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