In the most recent episode of Radiolab, producer Simon Adler took a long look at animal conservation efforts via the case of big game hunter Corey Knowlton, who made the news earlier this year after paying $350,000 to hunt and kill an endangered Namibian black rhino. Knowlton received horrible death threats and all the rest. Ricky Gervais even called him “murdering scum.” This was quite a controversy.

Here’s how it goes: once in a while a government engaged in wildlife conservation—in this case Namibia—will auction off a ticket that grants the winning bidder the right to kill a member of a protected species. The money from the auction is then returned to the government, to be used to fund further conservation efforts. In the case of black rhinos, small and vulnerable populations are maintained on private game reserves. Older males reach a point beyond which they are no longer part of the reproductive chain, but that won’t keep the randy bastards from bullying and turfing younger males, nor from sexually predating females. This can and does lead to younger black rhinos being maimed or killed, and threatens the overall health of the black rhino population, especially the small and geographically isolated populations within a given game reserve. It falls, then, to a game warden and/or a professional hunter to track these aggressive older males and, well, engage in population control. It’s an unfortunate business.

Of course, as described above, this is all done at the expense of the game reserve or the Namibian government, and here’s where big game hunters enter the equation—instead of having a member of the conservation apparatus do the tracking and killing, the right to kill the aggressive male is sold to some billionaire in Texas or Dubai or Sweden. The right to kill the bull alone hauls in tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for conservation, and then the eager hunter forks over cash to get to Namibia; for a place to stay once there; for transportation; for sustenance; for guides; for a professional hunter to lead the effort; etc. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the killing of this single black rhino, whose number was up whether it fell to a big game hunter or not, will significantly power the local economy and ongoing conservation efforts for a good long while.

If you squint just enough and tilt your head just right it’s possible, then, to position big game hunters and those who facilitate big game hunting as the real animal lovers, even as altruists, which Mr. Knowlton very passionately does in his conversations with Adler. At one point, Knowlton breaks down while responding to pointed questions about the disconnect between this economically vital part of the conservation chain and so-called environmentalists, who he endeavors to position as reckless, careless, and explicitly opposed to the protection of threatened animals. He’s convinced of the righteousness of his position, and convincing—listening to him choke up, it’s possible to have your entire view of big game hunting hurled into chaos in just a few short minutes.

To hear him tell it, the conservation of animals, particularly in Africa, is an expensive-as-hell uphill battle against poachers and land-grabbers and whatever else—pollution and climate change, perhaps, although this second-generation oil man of course never says so—and is bound to be a losing battle, in the end. There’s just no money in it, or, anyway, there’s evidently more money in poaching and land use. Unless an actual monetary value is placed on the continued existence of the animals themselves, they will be abandoned to die out. On the other hand, if the animals are valuable enough to keep around, then they will need a place to stay, and if they need a place to stay, they need someone to look after that place, and so on. And if, say, a rhino doesn’t have monetary value as a food source or for fur or hides, rhinos can at least have value as a great big thing that puny men with underdeveloped sex organs can stalk through a habitat and shoot with big guns until they are finally dead. In fact, by limiting the opportunities to legally shoot protected animals, you engage supply-side economics in a way that allows conservation efforts to achieve funding via the minimum number of animal deaths.


And, voila! Now you have a reason to value rhinos with actual money: because wealthy people want to keep enough of them around to serve as target practice and mounted souvenirs.

Here’s where this starts to fall apart, a little: Knowlton positions himself as someone who has now put actual time and energy and emotion and (crucially) wealth into animal conservation (even taking a pointed jab at Twitter activism), and is never interrogated on what seems to be a key question—if Knowlton thinks protection of the black rhino is worth $350,000 of his money, why didn’t he just write a check for $350,000? Why is wildlife conservation activism incidental to his pursuit of thrills?


You will wonder, here, why this matters. The black rhino probably does not care one way or another whether the person who fires the slug that turns his lights out forever was paid by the Namibian government, or himself paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege. And isn’t this just a clever way of duping big game hunters into footing the bill for wildlife conservation? Someone is going to shoot the rhino dead—if we can find a way to spin this up into a boatload of cash for wildlife conservation, that seems like a thing we should do.

It would have been nice if someone had asked Knowlton about this. This is a point worth interrogating, because accepting at face value that hunting for sport is not only compatible with caring about animal welfare but is actually more morally upright in this regard is at least tricky, if not dangerous. There are consequences to allowing big game hunting, even as an important part of the conservation apparatus.


Here’s an example, fresh in everyone’s mind: Cecil the lion was also killed by a big game hunter this year. The Zimbabwean government says that, unlike the sanctioned killing of a grumpy old rhino by Knowlton and his group, Cecil was lured away from his sanctuary by big game hunters expressly due to the illegality of the kill. Dr. Walter James Palmer is like Corey Knowlton in a few respects: he’s a wealthy American, he’s an experienced big game hunter, he spent big money to get to hunting grounds in Africa, he put money into the local economy, and he paid local guides to lead him through his hunt. He is unlike Knowlton only in that the money he put into facilitating his hunt does not eventually kick back to conservation efforts. The money he put into facilitating his hunt does kick back to the big game hunting apparatus, which, in at least this one important way, is distinct and separate and incidental to conservation efforts. The network of people facilitating big game hunting in Africa is evidently just as available for illegal big game hunting as it is for the real animal lovers crowd.

It gets harder and harder to accept the self-flattering altruistic angle of big game hunting as it’s subjected to scrutiny. Knowlton, for example, was notably not donating $350,000 to black rhino conservation without transacting the chance to gun one down himself. He was willing to wait for a legal opportunity to kill a rhino, but, while he was waiting, so was the Namibian government waiting for a financial windfall to finance their conservation efforts. Corey Knowlton would have you believe his rhino hunt was him putting his conservation money where his mouth is, but it’s worth pointing out that his conservation money doesn’t buy animal conservation for him—what it buys for him is the exact opposite. It buys animal destruction.


And this is the same thing Palmer’s money bought—the destruction of a protected animal. Where all that money went after it changed hands is all incidental, and probably unverifiable.

So, big game hunting and wildlife conservation are not the same thing, even while they can be said to incidentally facilitate one another. What positioning big game hunting as a means of responsible stewardship does, among other things, is it prevents us from taking the position that trophy hunting is, itself, morally unacceptable. What makes various killings morally distinguishable, by current standards, is who paid who, a bunch of bureaucratic stuff. But while the act itself—stalking a rare animal and killing it just to kill it—is, without all the bureaucratic context, at worst morally neutral, there will always be people who find ways to do it outside of whatever channels work to make it productive.


The most recent poster case for this is Clayton Stoner, who skirted bureaucratic details to gain a ticket to kill a bear in Canada, and who would be right to wonder why the same killing of the same bear would be positioned as morally acceptable simply because he spent a little more of his year living in Vancouver. It makes no difference to the bear. It’s hard to work up moral outrage over the sanctity of local ordinances when Stoner had a permit to kill a bear, bought from the government in charge of conservation of the bear, and when he only did, after all, kill that bear. As with Knowlton’s rhino, that bear’s ticket was already punched—it’s hard to get very worked up about who exactly did the deed.

But that’s just it: those who are offended by Stoner’s kill are offended that it happened at all, before we even get to the part where a bear had to be shot and butchered by a grinning fat cat so that other bears could be afforded a viable habitat. Not for food, not for fur, not for safety, but because a rich guy wanted to kill something. Right there on its face, the act is barbaric. Turning it into a funding source for conservation just monetizes that barbarism while we ought to instead be discouraging it altogether.


And then there’s the power this monetization gives to the wealthy to set the parameters of wildlife conservation, another topic not once broached by Radiolab. In real terms, what the Namibian government has done is gone to an exceedingly wealthy American and asked him for money to fund the protection of black rhinos, and what he’s told them in return is “only if I can shoot one of them.” This is how obscene the power imbalance is, in the world, between the wealthiest and the rest of us: we’re so hard up for some of that sweet, sweet trickle-down money, we will literally let the person with all the loot kill the very animals we’re trying to protect in order to coax them into lending some of their resources back to the pot. That’s what wealth buys you, today: the opportunity to dictate terms to everyone else. It should always be galling, but it is never more so than when the terms call for an innocent thing to actually die.

These aren’t intellectual concerns. Governments are monetizing the bloodlust and thrill-seeking of trophy hunters, and then recontextualizing and lionizing their enterprise. Big game hunters are, right now, telling themselves that they’re the real animal lovers. To keep this from turning into a wholesale slaughter of protected animals, the supply of targets is limited via tickets, which drives the price into the realm of only the obscenely wealthy. And so now what we have are penned in habitats that exist solely for the hunting adventures of plutocrats, and actual, living animals who are offered up as sacrifices for their favor. And now there’s a functioning black market for the rich big game hunters who don’t feel like waiting for the clearing of red tape. This isn’t the reimagining. This is our world, today, described as it is.


Knowlton admonishes Radiolab host Robert Krulwich for suggesting a world in which humans use their resources and sophistication to carve out sufficient space for wildlife to exist without a blood transaction, pointing out that no such world exists and that he, Knowlton, is the one dealing with the realities of wildlife conservation in the world as it exists. The shame, the eternal shame, the fucking crime, is that no one pushed back with the truth: the world as it exists and the realities of wildlife conservation are being shaped and dictated entirely by members of Knowlton’s economic class. In other words, he made the world as it exists. He can’t now point at it and say “I am limited by this thing!”

Knowlton didn’t write a check for $350,000 to save some rhinos. That would only happen in the imaginary world. In the world that exists, he waited until one was brought to the altar for slaughter, and he’s no fucking hero.


(Also, you should give money to wildlife conservation so we can make these motherfuckers obsolete. Especially if you’re obscenely wealthy.)