A permit to hunt an endangered African black rhino sold for $350,000 on Saturday evening at a Dallas auction held to raise money for conservation efforts but criticized by wildlife advocates.
Steve Wagner, a spokesman for the Dallas Safari Club, which sponsored the closed-door event, confirmed the sale of the permit for a hunt in the African nation of Namibia. He declined to name the buyer.
The Safari Club's executive director, Ben Carter, has defended the auction, saying all money raised will go toward protecting the species. He also said the rhino that the winner will be allowed to hunt is old, male and non-breeding – and that the animal was likely to be targeted for removal anyway because it was becoming aggressive and threatening other wildlife.
But the auction drew howls from critics, including wildlife conservationists and animal rights groups, and the FBI said it was investigating death threats against members of the club.
The auction took place in downtown Dallas under tight security.
True conservationism means not harming animals and disrupting their habitat, Ashley Byrne, a campaign specialist at PETA, told Al Jazeera.
Byrne said the Texas auction was essentially putting "a big dollar sign" on the head of an endangered species.
TV icon and animal-rights activist Bob Barker called the auction a "cheap thrill" in a letter sent Friday to the Dallas Safari Club and published on People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' (PETA) website.
He urged the club to cancel the event.
Barker criticized the club's defense that the rhino to be hunted was an older, non-breeding male, saying "as an older male myself, I must say this seems like a rather harsh way of dealing with senior citizens."
"What makes you any better than the poachers who kill rhinos to feed their families? At least, they are honest about their less noble motives," Barker asked in the letter. "You try to dress up greed under the guise of 'conservation.'"
Barker suggested using money to keep rhinos alive through investments in eco-tourism programs, which he said could be very lucrative. If the hunters really want to mount a head on their wall, Barker offered his own in an autographed photo.
But not all conservationists disagreed with the auction – the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the oldest and largest conservation network, said it is a misunderstood issue.
Rosie Cooney of IUCN told Al Jazeera in an email that the Namibian government allows a very small number of trophy hunts of old males and the Dallas Safari Club is simply allowing the government to make more money off of the permit by opening it up to North American hunters.
"So, I'm afraid while it would be nice to be able to recommend alternative approaches for conservation that don't involve killing animals ... we view trophy hunting as playing an important and generally effective role in conservation over large areas of Africa," Cooney said.
She added that eco-tourism can have a greater effect on the environment than "limited, carefully managed hunting."
About 40 protesters gathered early Saturday evening outside the convention center where the auction and a pre-auction dinner were held. They carried signs and chanted slogans voicing opposition to the killing of an animal from an endangered species. Most dispersed just after 6 p.m. CST.
There are about 25,000 rhinos in Africa – 20,000 white rhinos and 5,000 black rhinos – with the majority in South Africa. Namibia is one of the leading habitats after that.
Though both countries allow for a few carefully regulated hunts under internationally approved guidelines each year with proceeds going to fund conservation, poachers continue to target the species for its horn, which is valuable on the black market. It is prized in some cultures as a traditional medicine.
In 2012, Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull reported that attacks by poachers in South Africa kill a rhino almost every day.
"Poachers come by helicopter and dart a rhino from the air with a powerful tranquilizer, a drug three thousand times more powerful than morphine,” he reported.
"As (a rhino) succumbs to deep sedation, they take a chainsaw to her face. The machine's sharp teeth tear into her skull, removing her nasal cavities, exposing parts of her brain," he said. "(The horn) will be sold to a middle man for a small fortune."
The near-extinction of the species has also been attributed to habitat loss.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press. Renee Lewis contributed to this report.