Horns locked over exotic species hunts

Pursuing big game just won't be the same in Texas any more, writes Tony Freemantle.

Pursuing big game just won't be the same in Texas any more, writes Tony Freemantle.

Its horns, sometimes up to 1.5 metres long, arc gracefully over its back, almost reaching its hindquarters when it lifts its head and sniffs the wind. Vast herds of them once roamed the semi-arid plains of North Africa and the Sahel, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.

It was named in an inscription on the Egyptian tomb of Sabu of Saqqara nearly 23 centuries ago and is thought to be the inspirational template for the unicorn.

In 2000, after finally succumbing to hunting, loss of habitat, climate change and war, the scimitar-horned oryx was declared extinct in the wild.

But not in Texas, where it has returned from the brink and now thrives in greater numbers than anywhere on Earth, and where it finds itself at the centre of a modern, protracted new battle for survival.

That battle is lost this Wednesday, Texas ranchers fear, when the scimitar-horned oryx and two of its African cousins - the addax and the dama gazelle - officially receive full protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Without the unfettered ability to hunt, breed and trade these animals, ranchers say they will lose the economic incentive to maintain the herds, and whatever gains have been made in restoring their numbers will be lost.

By any measure, those gains have been impressive. The Texas-based Exotic Wildlife Association says there were 32 scimitar-horned oryx in a captive breeding program in Texas in 1979 today there are more than 11,000. Only two addax were known to exist in the state in 1971 today there are more than 5000. And the dama gazelle numbers have increased from nine in 1979 to more than 800 today.

But what makes this success story controversial is that the economic viability of the herds rests largely on the fact that trophy hunters will pay a hefty price - up to $US5500 ($5300) for an oryx and $US10,000 for a dama gazelle - to bag one, and there are those who would rather see the animals disappear than see them hunted.

Friends of Animals, a Connecticut animal rights organisation adamantly opposed to hunting, has been fighting for more than two decades to have the three species under the care of the act.

That will happen on April 4 and the ranchers do not like it.

"What they had was a blanket exemption from the Endangered Species Act," the Friends of Animals president, Priscilla Feral, said. "They don't like the fact that we forced the government to enforce the law."

That is perhaps understating it - only on the surface is this about enforcing the law. At its heart, it is a bitter fight over conservation and how that intersects with private property rights and animal rights.

Feral would rather see the three species become extinct in Texas than see a single animal hunted in what she says are "canned hunts". She calls the ranchers "pimps". She says they are more interested in putting a head on the wall than in conserving the species.

True, altruism is not to be entirely credited with the meteoric rise in the numbers of scimitar-horned oryx, addax and dama gazelle in Texas. It is about making money, and if it becomes difficult to hunt them, their value declines, and there are plenty of other desirable exotic species on Texas ranches - between 80 and 125, depending on how you count them - to take up the slack.

Already, before the implementation of the new rules, ranchers have been escalating hunts and selling their stocks of the three species before the bottom drops out of the market.

"There's ranchers up here that lined them up and killed every damned one they had because after April 4 they have no value at all," said J. David Bamberger, a celebrated Texas conservationist who pioneered the growth of the Texas scimitar-horned oryx herd in the late 1970s on his Hill Country ranch.

Some ranchers will apply for permits and continue offering the three antelope for hunts, said a Texas biologist, Elizabeth Mungall, who is the author of a book on the state's exotic wildlife, but many will not because of the bureaucracy involved and the government intrusion it will entail.

"Many of the ranchers don't want to be subject to federal inspection," she said. "These permits will allow the government to come onto their private property at any time, unannounced for inspection."

If Feral is the public face of the efforts to stop hunting the antelope, Charlie Seale is the face of her nemesis as executive director of the Exotic Wildlife Association. He maintains that should the new rule survive legal challenges from his organisation and other interested parties, the number of scimitar-horned oryx in Texas will plummet to no more than 1000 animals in 10 years.

"There is no slaughter market for these animals," he said. "Hunting gives them value."

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