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.

Lions and Rhinos and Gazelles… Oh My!

Can Private Conservation Contribute to Species Survival?

photo: Wikipedia- Nick Brandt

photo: Wikipedia- Nick Brandt

With conservation groups attending an illegal wildlife trafficking symposium in London this week, and the US announcing  its National Strategy on Wildlife Trafficking here at home, animal rights activists are using the opportunity to blur the lines between legal and illegal wildlife trade. Nevertheless, whether it is creating economic value for species preservation within local African communities, incenting captive breeding as a conservation safety net, or raising money for anti-poaching efforts, private commercial activity is an economic engine driving significant contributions toward the conservation of some of Africa’s most charismatic megafauna. Poachers for rhino horns, ivory and asian medicine markets are the true enemies, not legal hunting activities and captive breeding programs.

ranger brent stirton nat geo

Ranger patroling for poachers.
photo: Brent Stirton, National Geographic

Africa is proving to be a more and more difficult arena in which to affect real conservation.  No longer is the enemy simply corruption for personal enrichment. Recently, the Washington Post reported on the links between the astronomical amounts of money generated in the black market for rhino horn and elephant ivory, to funding for  al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. With Vietnamese demand for rhino horn fetching $50,000- 100,000 per kilo, the level of violence perpetrated on black rhinos and the rangers responsible for protecting this “Critically Endangered” species, is almost unfathomable.

A similarly depraved dynamic drives the relentless slaughter of African elephants for their ivory. These huge ill-begotten profits are coveted by terrorists and sophisticated crime syndicates to fund operations. Numbers of elephants and rhinos poached have spiked exponentially over the last decade. Needless to say, the authorities in African nations are outgunned, ill-equipped and underfunded. In an effort to help fund efforts to protect rhinos the Dallas Safari Club raised $350,000 to fight poaching in Namibia with a conservation fundraising auction last month. Poaching, not controlled hunting, threatens the future of elephants and rhinos in Africa.

On another front, according to Duke University Professor Stuart Pimm, there are approximately 35,000 free ranging lions left on the African continent today. Although at a recent African lion workshop hosted by US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), three experts agreed that the lion is not currently in danger of extinction, US based animal rights organizations petitioned FWS to list lions as “Endangered” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), citing hunting as a significant factor in lion decline. However, most conservation experts agree, habitat loss and human-lion conflict, not hunting, are the primary causes of the lions’ decline in Africa. To the contrary, hunting advocates have been the biggest barrier between the African lion and decimation by creating economic incentives for local communities to protect lions as a valuable and sustainable resource.

Addax Antelope

Addax Antelope

Meanwhile, back in the United States, Texas game ranchers are raising endangered African hoof stock in large numbers. A few years ago the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) filed a lawsuit beginning a prolonged legal battle to block permitting by FWS of ranchers who have brought three endangered antelope species (the Scimitar-Horned Oryx, Dama Gazelle and Addax) back from the brink of extiction. The argument that these antelope are better off extinct than thriving on Texas game ranches was undercutting the economic value of the endangered gazelles and threatened to destroy all the good work these dedicated conservationists had done. Fortunately, legislation known as the “Three Amigos” bill, reinstated an exemption for captive bred specimens protected under the ESA, again allowing for  the propagation and trade of these three species, was passed on January 21, 2014– clearing the way for commercial interests to protect these magnificent animals from extinction.

The thrust of anti-hunting rhetoric has been to equate hunting to poaching and characterizing any economic activity involving animals as inherently immoral or unethical. These groups demonize hunting and hunters, and try to mold public opinion to be empathic to anti-hunting ideology by emphasizing the death of individual animals in dramatic fashion — hoping to trigger protective feelings from an animal loving public that relates to their own pets. They refuse to acknowledge the economic contributions made by commercial interests in wildlife and seek to characterize the economic value of animals to be exploitative and immoral.

“In a civilized and cultivated country, wild animals only continue to exist at all when conserved by the sportsman. The excellent people who protest against all hunting, and consider sportsmen as enemies of wildlife, are wholly ignorant of the fact that in reality the genuine sportsman is by all odds the most important factor in keeping wild creatures from total extermination.” ~ Teddy Roosevelt

The truth is, if they have no economic value, these animals are far more difficult to conserve. This fact is reinforced every day on the ground in Africa when a villager sees more value in protecting his livestock by poisoning a lion than he does in letting the lion live. Economic incentives are a vital component of 21st century wildlife conservation. Just as the illegal value of wildlife trafficking is driving many animals towards extinction, continuing to develop a legal economic value and trade for these same animals may be their only salvation. Private commercial conservation efforts are an intrinsic part any sincere effort at species preservation.