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

Addax
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.