Question: When is it appropriate to kill a critically endangered animal for sport? Correct Answer: Never

This week, following a court challenge, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revoked a seven year-old exemption that among other things has allowed three highly endangered species of antelope to continue to be hunted for sport on U.S. game ranches, despite their protected status under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. 

The message that this exemption sent was clear: Even though these antelope species have been virtually eliminated from the wild due to over-hunting, it is still okay to hunt them for sport.  It is a horrible message contrary to the basic tenants of conservation of endangered species, and starkly illustrates just how much influence special-interest trophy hunters have wielded with the U.S. government in the past.

It is hard to think of three more rare land mammals than these antelopes. The first of the three, the addax, is believed to have less than 300 individuals left roaming in its natural habitat; the second, the dama gazelle, less than 500; and most experts believe that the third antelope, the scimitar-horned oryx, has been extinct from the wild for over fifteen years.

And what caused the massive decline of these beautiful animals?  Habitat loss in Northern Africa – where they all once were found – was certainly a factor.  But what’s killing the two remaining wild species, and what ultimately wiped out the now extinct scimitar-horned oryx, was over-hunting.

So why then did the US government allow these almost-extinct animals to be killed for sport for the past seven years?  The reason is because all three species have been bred successfully in captivity in the U.S. -- both by legitimate conservation-minded organizations and zoo-led breeding programs, and by canned-hunting operators who charge trophy hunters to visit their game ranches and kill confined animals.

While there have been claims made that these hunting ranches could contribute to the conservation of species like these rare antelopes, that would require carefully monitored stud-books, partnerships with accredited zoos that participate in exchanges for genetic diversity, and most importantly a plan for future reintroduction of the species.  But for the last seven years game ranches have not had to prove any of these things before allowing “takes” (or harm) of these endangered antelopes.  Instead they have been able to proceed as if the animals were not listed under the Endangered Species Act at all.

But luckily this past week, the US government did what it should have done seven years ago – it gave these critically endangered animals a break. And for that, we thank the US Fish & Wildlife Service for adding this new level of protection for these animals.

This move in the right direction by the US Fish & Wildlife Service will put a halt to continued unfettered exploitation of these animals on game ranches, and hopefully will allow for a much more important and altruistic issue to be addressed:  what can we do to bring back the addax, dama gazelle and scimitar oryx to their native landscape in Northern Africa?  We know further trophy-hunting of captive animals won’t do anything to help answer that question, but maybe stopping it will.

--JF

-- For more information about the International Fund for Animal Welfare effort to save animals in crisis around the world, visit http://www.ifaw.org

-- Show your support of the US Fish & Wildlife decision by sending a letter of support to Director Ashe at the USFWS thanking him for the decision eliminating the exemption that had allowed canned hunting of the three ESA-listed North African antelope. 

Mailing address: 1849 C Street Northwest, Washington D.C., 20240

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