DALLAS (AP) — Hunt the black rhino to save the black rhino.
That's the Dallas Safari Club's approach to a fundraiser for efforts to protect the endangered species. The group hopes to raise more than $200,000 Saturday by auctioning off the right to shoot and kill a black rhinoceros in the African nation of Namibia.
But the auction has drawn howls from critics, including wildlife and animal rights groups, and the FBI earlier this week said it was investigating death threats against members of the club.
Ben Carter, executive director of the Safari Club, defended the auction. He said all money raised will go toward rhino conservation efforts. He also said the rhino that the winner will hunt is old, male and nonbreeding — and that the animal was likely to be targeted for removal anyway because it was becoming aggressive and threatening other wildlife.
Carter added that wildlife experts say culling a herd is an acceptable habitat management practice.
"In most cases, this animal is detrimental," Carter said. "He's past his prime."
But critics have questioned that logic. Officials from the Humane Society and the International Fund for Animal Welfare have said that while culling can be appropriate in abundant animal populations, all black rhinos should be protected, given their endangered status.
An estimated 4,000 black rhinos remain in the wild, down from 70,000 in the 1960s. Nearly 1,800 are in Namibia, according to the safari club.
Critics have also said any hunting of a rhino sends a bad message to the public.
"This auction is telling the world that an American will pay anything to kill their species," Jeffrey Flocken, North American regional director of the Massachusetts-based IFAW, said earlier this week. "This is, in fact, making a spectacle of killing an endangered species."
The auction was to take place Saturday night in downtown Dallas under tight security and behind closed doors. Organizers hoped to at least break the previous high bid for one of the permits in Namibia, which is $223,000, and had said the amount could be as high as $1 million. The nation offers five permits each year, and the one being auctioned Saturday was the first to be made available for purchase outside of Namibia.
The winning bidder could come from anywhere in the world, and at least some bidders are expected to enter by phone.
About 40 protesters gathered early Saturday evening outside the convention center where the auction and a pre-auction dinner were to take place. They held signs and chanted. Most dispersed by just after 6 p.m. CST.
Jim and Lauren Ries traveled with their children from Atlanta to protest the auction of the rare black rhino hunting permit in Dallas. Jim Ries said it was his son Carter, 12, and daughter Olivia, 11, who pushed for them to go and participate.
"We heard what the Dallas Safari Club was doing and we thought it was just wrong that they were auctioning off to kill a black rhino and we really got upset that they were thinking this," Carter Ries said.
Jim Ries said his children are passionate about animal conservation and were working to help adopt cheetahs in Africa. The family started a nonprofit called One More Generation, dedicated to saving endangered species.
"There's less than 5,000 black rhinos left on the planet," the father said, "and if our kids ever want to see a rhino left in the wild, we can't be pulling the trigger on every one we say is too old to breed."
Safari Club director Carter said he and club members were deluged in the days before the auction by angry messages, including the death threats.
"It appears to be an orchestrated series from people who are strongly anti-hunting," Carter said.
Poachers long have targeted all species of rhino, primarily for its horn, which is valuable on the international black market. Made of the protein keratin, the chief component in fingernails and hooves, the horn has been used in carvings and for medicinal purposes, mostly in Asia. The near-extinction of the species also has been attributed to habitat loss.
Associated Press video journalist John Mone contributed to this report. Graczyk reported from Houston.
Follow Nomaan Merchant on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nomaanmerchant .