DALLAS - A Texas hunting club that auctioned off a permit to shoot an endangered black rhinoceros in Africa said it will cancel the hunt if a federal agency denies the winning bidder's request to bring the dead animal back to the U.S. as a trophy.
Corey Knowlton bid $350,000 at a January auction that the Dallas Safari Club billed as a fundraising effort to save the endangered species. Last spring, he applied for a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that would enable him to import the rhino's body following the hunt in Namibia. But he's still waiting to hear back.
The agency is applying extra scrutiny to Knowlton's request because of the rise in poaching, said spokesman Gavin Shire.
If the permit is denied, the safari club plans to refund Knowlton's money that was pledged to a rhino conservation fund in the southwestern African country.
"Most people that have an animal mounted, it's their memory of their experience," said Ben Carter, the safari club's executive director. "It's not always, 'Look at what I've shot.' When they look at it, they remember everything. That's what he bid the money on, that opportunity."
The wildlife agency began taking public comment on the permit application this month and has already heard from many of the groups that fervently opposed the auction.
The safari club has defended the planned hunt, noting that auction proceeds would go to a trust fund administered by the Namibian government to help boost the black rhino population.
The wildlife service expects to make a decision after the public comment period ends Dec. 8, taking into account the state of the herd in Namibia, where 1,800 of the world's 4,880 black rhinos live. The agency also is examining exactly how the auction funds would be administered.
Last year, the service granted a permit to import a sport-hunted black rhino taken in Namibia in 2009, but increased poaching since then may impact whether any more are approved, said Shire.
Each year, the Namibian government issues five black rhino hunting permits that fund efforts to protect the species. The program includes habitat improvement, hiring game scouts to monitor the rhinos, and removing the animals' horns to reduce their appeal to poachers.
"The aim is to re-invest these financial resources back to conservation, protected area management and rural community development," said Kenneth Uiseb, Namibia's director of wildlife monitoring and research.
But opponents of the auction say the programs are not worthwhile if they entail the killing of any endangered animal.
"Kill it to save it is not only cruel, it's not conservation," said Jeff Flocken, the North American regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "If black rhinos and other dwindling species are to have a future, people must be encouraged to value animals for their inherent worth alive, not their price tag when they are dead."
The safari club has said the hunt will involve one of five black rhinos selected by a committee and approved by the Namibian government. The five are to be older males that can't reproduce.
Namibia sold another hunting permit for $200,000 directly to Michael Luzich, a Las Vegas investment manager who is also seeking a permit to bring the trophy into the U.S., according to Shire.
But Luzich has received far less scrutiny than Knowlton, who said in January he hired full-time security because he received death threats after his name was leaked on the Internet.
Knowlton lives in Royse City, about 30 miles from Dallas, and leads international hunting trips for a Virginia-based company, The Hunting Consortium. He has killed more than 120 species, including the so-called big five in Africa - a lion, a leopard, an elephant, a Cape buffalo and a rhinoceros, according to the company's website.
He did not return messages left by The Associated Press for this story, but told Dallas television station WFAA in January that he believed the hunt would be managed well.
"I'm a hunter," Knowlton told WFAA. "I want to experience a black rhino. I want to be intimately involved with a black rhino."