DALLAS (CN) – A Texan who paid $350,000 to kill an endangered black rhino in Africa sued Delta Airlines for refusing to ship his trophy, claiming the ban discourages conservation, breaks international law and stigmatizes hunters.
Dallas resident Corey Knowlton sued Delta in Federal Court, joined by Dallas Safari Club, Houston Safari Club, Conservation Force, the Campfire Association and the Tanzania Hunting Operators Association.
Knowlton made headlines in January 2014 when the Dallas Safari Club accepted his bid for a hunt and Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism issued him a permit to kill the rhino. Despite criticism from animal rights groups and several death threats, Knowlton killed the rhino in May.
Two months later, Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer put African hunting in world headlines by killing a beloved lion named Cecil in Zimbabwe. Delta banned shipping of hunting days later.
“Effective immediately, Delta will officially ban shipment of all lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo trophies worldwide as freight,” Delta said in an Aug. 3 statement.
“Prior to this ban, Delta’s strict acceptance policy called for absolute compliance with all government regulations regarding protected species. Delta will also review acceptance policies of other hunting trophies with appropriate government agencies and other organizations supporting legal shipments,” the airline said.
Zimbabwe said last week that it will not charge Palmer because his “papers were in order.”
The issue made headlines again last week, when a hunter killed a mature elephant in Zimbabwe, whose elephant herds have been devastated by poaching.
Hunting advocates claim that the pricey hunting fees – as much as $90,000 to kill one animal – are a major funding source for African conservation.
Critics say that most of the fee money is lost to government corruption.
In his lawsuit, Knowlton claims that Delta’s ban “rob(s) wildlife habitat of its economic value, encourage(s) habitat conversion to agriculture, grazing, and industry, and undercut(s) range states’ tried-and-true conservation strategy.”
He claims the ban “jeopardizes the benefits of tourist hunting and its centrality to conservation” in Africa.
Lead plaintiff Conservation Force and the Campfire Association describe themselves as conservation groups.
The lawsuit states: “Tourist hunting revenue is the backbone of anti-poaching in Africa. Hunting fees make up the lion’s share of operating budget revenue for national and local wildlife authorities, which dedicate the largest share of their budgets to rangers and equipment. Hunting revenue also underwrites the anti-poaching units maintained by individual safari operators and the community game scouts providing additional boots on the ground. All three levels of anti-poaching (wildlife departments, operators, and community scouts) are sustained by the user-pay conservation system. If there are fewer users, as Delta’s embargo envisions, there are fewer boots on the ground and reduced security for elephant, rhino, and other at-risk wildlife.”
Knowlton claims that his money went “exclusively for black rhino protection and recovery” and that Namibian officials will not use it until his trophy is imported to the United States. Delta’s ban therefore prevents or delays Namibia from spending the “much-needed conservation” money.
“Not only is Delta’s embargo unconscionable – it is illegal,” the complaint states. “Delta is failing to fulfill its obligations as a common carrier, and this failure injures and will continue to injure plaintiffs until the unlawful embargo is lifted.
“Plaintiffs ask the court to declare that Delta has violated its federal common law duties as a common carrier. Delta cannot discriminate against passengers or cargo. Trophies of the Big Five [lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo] are not dangerous goods. Delta’s irresponsible embargo appears to be based on misinformation and a misunderstanding of the legal status of these goods, and motivated by a desire to placate a noisy and ill-advised group of Facebook posters, at the expense of conservation programs, wildlife, and livelihoods of local peoples, and the interests of plaintiffs.”
Knowlton et al. say animal trophies are brought home by “virtually all” hunting clients and should not be treated as contraband.
“Trophies are taxidermied (or to-be taxidermied) memorabilia from the game animals taken on these hunts. It is a general ethic of tourist safari hunters not to waste any part of the game taken,” the complaint states. “The meat is eaten or provided to the local people for their consumption, and the skin, horns, tusks etc., are transported home by the hunter as greatly valued personal property. The trophies Delta is embargoing are among plaintiffs’ and their members’ most valued personal property
Delta did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.
The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment that Delta violated its common law and contractual duties as a common carrier to transport passengers and cargo indiscriminately, an injunction, and damages for tortious interference. They are represented by James Hudson.
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