Until late June, trophy-hungry tourists had the legal right to kill endangered African antelopes at U.S. ranches, by paying about $3,500 to hunt and kill a Scimitar-horned oryx—and even more for an addax or Dama gazelle. They could take the heads home as trophies.
These antelope communities are critically endangered in their home territories in northern Africa, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. Addax and Dama gazelles are nearly wiped out, due to hunting, war, desertification of habitat, human settlement and agribusiness. Scimitar-horned oryx are virtually extinct; most live on Texas hunting ranches, where they are bred. If they were being shot in Africa, it would be illegal poaching.
So why was the killing allowed in the U.S.? A “blanket exemption” to the Endangered Species Act was issued during the Bush administration. As reported by John Platt in Sixty-Second Science, an Internet bulletin from Scientific American, “that loophole has now been closed, following a federal judge’s ruling in a lawsuit brought by the organization Friends of Animals, based on Darien, Connecticut.”
In 2005, following a Friends of Animals lawsuit, these antelopes were listed as endangered, but the government issued a rule creating a loophole for captive-bred antelope, claiming “captive breeding in the United States has contributed significantly to the conservation of these species.” We resisted. "Why would the government allow the hunting of these antelope any more than they’d allow the hunting of a chimpanzee?" asked Friends of Animals President Priscilla Feral.
So, with Jay Tutchton and now Mike Harris -- directors of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law -- Friends of Animals insisted that the government had violated the Endangered Species Act by letting tourist ranches harm, harass, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect members of endangered species. Working against the government’s weakening of protections for undomesticated animals, students, lawyers and our members pushed back at the government’s move to split lists of shielded animals that allowed some communities of being to be bred into a completely controlled existence for human amusement.
With the blanket exemption in place, advocates were prevented from even finding out which ranches were operating under the loophole. Thus, a lucrative industry has flourished for the ranches. Embracing hunting, tourism, feed, fencing and taxidermy, this business has been worth at least $100 million annually to the state economy, with oryx among “the most popular exotics in Texas” — and that, hunters contended, was “crucial for its survival.”
The Safari Club, a pro-hunting group which intervened as a defendant, said advocates could find the information we sought about the industry on the Internet. But access to information about the antelopes wasn’t the only problem. The splitting of the “endangered” listing for U.S.-bred antelopes followed similar fragmentations of ESA listings that resulted in removal of protections for gray wolves, Gunnison’s prairie dogs and Queen Charlotte goshawks for political and commercial purposes. Under Bush’s leadership, the federal government eroded the Act’s protections to cater to local governments and special interests. In July 2008, for instance, federal officials removed protections for Preble’s meadow jumping mice in Wyoming while keeping the Colorado populations on the endangered species list — so protections would end at the state line.
Our task is to do everything we can to press the current administration to change course. And the antelopes’ case offered an important opportunity for the law students to research and present a federal argument. They noted that the Endangered Species Act does allow some uses for “scientific purposes or to enhance the propagation or survival of the affected species,” if the government publishes notice and allows for public comment for each “good faith” application for an exemption or permit at every stage of the proceeding. But it does not provide a means to authorize the sport hunting of these animals.
U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. wrote for the federal court, "Blanket exemptions under regulations are anathema to [the intentions of the Endangered Species Act] because they allow the Fish and Wildlife Service to permit a great number of exemptions at once without providing the detailed information to the public that would be required in an individualized analysis."
And now the antelopes cannot be handled and killed for fun and prestige by tourists. This doesn’t give antelopes any rights, of course. But it does protect (or simply spare from being bred for such a violent and degrading purpose) a specific community of transplanted antelopes. It stops a specific community of thrill-seekers from stalking them, and exposes the sham nature of the government’s allowance for hunting ranches that purportedly help propagate endangered species, while these same ranches rake in large sums for pimping animals from communities that are just barely hanging on to a presence on Earth – in effect, exploiting the very classification of “endangered species” for monetary gain.
We are thankful to the Environmental Law Clinic at Denver University and the support of our members for making this success possible. We are now pressing the federal government to protect the animals currently in captivity, who number about 2,000 or more, from harm at the hands of hunting enterprises.
As this article goes to press, we have just become aware that the government and Safari Club are filing an appeal in this case. Friends of Animals and the clinic at Denver University will, of course, work diligently to defend the courts decision.