Call of the Not-So-Wild

Article excerpt

Baixinha means "pretty one." And for many living near the South African farming town of Brits, an hour's drive from Johannesburg, this East African black rhino is indeed a beauty. Though well into her golden years at 26, she remains an adored local celebrity--so mild-tempered that tourists can walk up and pet her.

To her owners, an American executive and a South African wildlife dealer, she's worth more dead than alive. Early this year a professional guide offered $60,000 to buy the rhino for a "hunt." With only 500 black rhinos remaining worldwide, this middleman also stood to gain a tidy profit. But a local wildlife group offered to raise money to purchase Baixinha and retire her more gracefully. And last month a high-court judge issued a stay of execution, ordering provincial officials to endorse the deal. Instead of winding up with her head mounted on a wall, Baixinha will peacefully live out her days in a wildlife sanctuary.

Baixinha's reprieve, sadly, is an exception. That's why the rhino has become the poster girl in a growing campaign to limit the commercial cruelty meted out to South Africa's wildlife. For the past eight years, free enterprise has been the government's centerpiece policy for saving the country's magnificent big game. The idea was that if entrepreneurs had the right to buy and sell the beasts, they'd also have a direct incentive to control their poaching. It worked. South Africa's national parks and private game ranches now teem with animals, and it has become the continent's most popular hunting destination, bringing in some $80 million a year in foreign revenues from hunters, who can easily pay $50,000 to bag a variety of African game. But letting the profit motive rule wildlife management can raise serious ethical questions. A big one concerns the so-called canned hunt, where hunters travel to South Africa to kill defenseless animals trapped in confined spaces.

On paper, it's not as bad as it sounds. The law requires that any animal sold for a hunt be registered, and South African provinces set rules aimed at ensuring that the odds aren't too heavily stacked against the animals. In KwaZulu-Natal, for instance, wildlife authorities ban hunting on farms smaller than 1,000 hectares. People who hunt on government land there must also pass a rudimentary test in marksmanship. And industry groups have their own codes of conduct. The most influential, the Professional Hunters' Association of South Africa, commits members to "honesty, integrity and morality." "We are totally against any form of unethical hunting, including canned lion hunting and hunting from vehicles," says Karel Landman, a former chairman of the Natal Game Rancher's Association, who runs a 7,000- hectare ranch in the province. He adds: "We can't enforce the code, but we actively encourage our members to stick to it."

There's the rub. And unfortunately, government enforcement doesn't have much more teeth. Private wildlife authorities can't recall more than a handful of significant prosecutions initiated in the past decade by the agency responsible for hunting regulation, the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. "The department is paralyzed," says Chris Mercer of the Kalahari Raptor Center, an animal-welfare facility north of Johannesburg. He recalls the case of a female rhino sold to a farmer at auction in Free State province two years ago for about $20,000. …