WASHINGTON -- The Dallas Safari Club, a Texas-based trophy hunting group, has announced plans to auction off a permit to hunt and kill a black rhino, a critically endangered species. Organizers believe the rare permit could fetch up to half a million dollars, which will be donated to fund future black rhino conservation efforts.
Around 5,000 black rhinos remain on earth, most of them spread through Namibia and South Africa. Hunted nearly to extinction, the black rhino population has declined by 98 percent since 1960, leading the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to classify the animal as "critically endangered."
The January 2014 auction will be the first of its kind in the United States, where the import and export of endangered species is prohibited. This past April, however, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved the import of a trophy-hunted black rhino for the first time, citing Namibia's promising rhino conservation program.
Dallas Safari Club director Ben Carter told HuffPost he believes the permit up for auction is only the fourth black rhino permit ever issued by Namibia. "I don't think I have ever seen any opportunity to hunt something that's this rare," he said, adding that the proceeds from the auction "will go back to Namibia, where they'll use it for conservation work."
A spokeswoman at the Namibian Embassy in Washington referred questions about the permit to the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism, which did not reply to emails.
Carter said the winner of the auction isn't obligated to hunt or kill the rhino. "If there's a conservation group that's not pro-hunting, they could buy that permit, and the animal wouldn't be hunted." Whoever wins the rhino permit, Carter said, it will be "someone who wants to make a major statement about how much they believe in conservation."
Animal rights groups were outraged by news of the auction, and worry that the U.S. government is setting a dangerous precedent by allowing any endangered species hunted as a trophy to be imported. "The problem with this is that if you create all these little import allowances one at a time, it's a slippery slope, and soon America just has an open trade in these highly endangered species," said Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.
But according to Tim Van Norman, chief of permits at the Fish and Wildlife Service, the April decision was in the best interest of the long-term survival of black rhinos as a species. "The animals [that will be hunted] are post-reproductive males, specifically selected," he said, so as not to negatively impact the herd at large.
"We're looking for benefits to the species in the wild, and if there's a well managed, scientifically based hunting program, then that can be a part of the conversation," Van Norman said.
Unfortunately, rhinos still tend to be worth a lot more money dead than alive. Among trophy hunters, the black rhino is the ultimate prize, and the most endangered of the "Big Five" -- the large animals that are considered the crown jewels of African big game hunting. The other four are the lion, African elephant, leopard and Cape buffalo. Rhinos are also prized by poachers, who slaughter hundreds every year for their horns, which are believed to possess healing powers in Chinese medicine.
ALSO ON HUFFPOST:
How will Trump’s administration impact you? Learn more