MILWAUKEE (AP) — The U.S. is allowing a hunter to bring a slain African black rhinoceros back home, the first time officials have allowed such a trophy to be imported since the animal was listed as endangered in 1980.
David K. Reinke, 52, killed the rhino in 2009 with the blessing of the Namibian government. He argued that the killing was an act of "conservation hunting" because he was culling an elderly rhino that was unable to reproduce but could still aggressively crowd out fertile rivals.
But the decision angers wildlife supporters, who worry it sets a dangerous precedent encouraging trophy hunters to kill endangered animals.
Black rhinos are categorized as a critically endangered species, with about 5,000 animals remaining. White rhinos are considered endangered, and officials estimate about 20,000 are still alive.
"My desire is to help save the rhino through a scientific method approved by the United States and other agencies," Reinke said.
The U.S. government has listed the black rhinoceros as endangered, making it illegal to import the animal — dead or alive — except for scientific purposes or if doing so enhances the species' survival. Other species of rhino, including the northern white rhinoceros, are protected as well.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said last month it granted Reinke's permit "in recognition of the role that well-managed, limited sport hunting plays" in the recovery of the black rhino in Namibia. The country allows five male black rhinos that are too old to reproduce to be shot each year, the service said.
The rhino that Reinke shot was 34 years old. The Fish and Wildlife Service says the rhino typically lives 30 to 35 years.
"The removal of limited numbers of males has been shown to contribute to overall population growth in some areas by reducing fighting injuries and deaths among males, decreasing juvenile mortality and shortening calving intervals," the service said in a statement.
All black rhinos in Namibia are marked on their ears so officials can identify them and select which ones are appropriate for hunting. Reinke's target was Rhino bull No. 27, which Namibian officials had monitored since it was brought to Waterberg Plateau National Park in 1981.
The Fish and Wildlife Service also noted that Reinke contributed $175,000 into Namibia's Game Products Trust Fund, which helps support conservation efforts.
Wayne Pacelle, the president of The Humane Society of the United States, called Reinke's arguments self-serving. He said big-game hunters have a sort of fraternity in which wealthy individuals try to distinguish themselves by killing rare and endangered species, even if they justify the shootings as advancing the causes of preservation.
"There are lots of people who give more than $200,000 a year to help animals, but no one says, 'I'll give you the money if you let me shoot one,'" Pacelle said. "I think we should disassociate the notion of giving money to help the rhino, from the act of killing them."
Reinke said he was making sure the black rhino was being entirely used. He said he left the meat for local church groups and community leaders, and the skin, skull and horn were coming back to the U.S. to be mounted.
He said he planned to enjoy the specimen for several years before eventually donating it to a museum so future generations could appreciate it. The Endangered Species Act would bar him from legally selling the rhino.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has an application pending from another hunter who hopes to shoot a black rhinoceros in South Africa this year. The service said it has not yet determined whether that situation would qualify for a permit under the Endangered Species Act.
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org