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Judge Clears Way for Rhino Trophy Imports

(CN) - A federal judge has sidelined a challenge to permits that green-lights trophy imports of endangered black rhinoceroses hunted in Namibia.

"The court recognizes plaintiffs' sincere commitment to the preservation of endangered animals, and this ruling does not suggest that there is no relationship between the importation of trophies of endangered animals and protecting these species," U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson wrote in Washington, D.C.

"But the relationship between the particular permits challenged here, which authorize the import of spoils of hunts that were entirely within Namibia's control, and plaintiffs' feared diminished enjoyment of black rhinoceros in Namibia in the future is too attenuated to confer standing on plaintiffs," Jackson added.

Friends of Animals and the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force had brought the federal complaint at issue after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued "trophy" import permits in March 2015 for a pair of hunting tourists.

While one of the permits was prospective - Corey Knowlton had won an auction to participate in a hunt staged by Namibia's Ministry of Environment and Tourism - the other permit allowed Michael Luzich to import the carcass of a rhino he killed in 2013.

Though the conservationists said these permits would embolden rhino poaching, Judge Jackson called the argument conclusory, noting that it depends on the actions of third parties who are not before the court."

Even if the court were to void the permits, that would not stop Namibia from staging hunts to kill black rhinos, according to the ruling.

Rather than challenging a specific agency program, the conservationists here would change how the service operates, Jackson added.

But "objections to the Knowlton and Luzich permits do not give them a platform from which they may request 'wholesale correction' of the agency's permitting program," the ruling states.

Since the groups are challenging neither an agency action nor a final agency action, their claims about future permitting procedures are not yet ripe, she added.

Jennifer Best, in-house counsel, has not returned a Friday email seeking comment.

Justice Department attorney Jason Hill also did not return an email from Friday afternoon seeking comment.

Both the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora have listed black rhinoceros as endangered for decades.

Several hundred thousand black rhinos once roamed Africa around 1900, but habitat loss and illegal poaching have brought their numbers to below 5,500.

Though commercial trade in rhino horns has been officially illegal since 1977, black-market trade continues thanks to demand. Rhino horns, a popular ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, sell for $30,000 a pound.

In addition to Namibia, the two-horned rhinos native can be found in other parts of eastern and southern Africa, including Botswana, Kenya and Zimbabwe. Despite their name, their hides vary in color from brown to gray.

A hooked upper lip that black rhinos use to grasp leaves and twigs distinguishes the species from the white rhino, which has a square upper lip used to feed on grass.

White rhinos also have bigger ears and skulls, and poor eyesight makes the black rhino more reliant on its senses of hearing and smell.

Adult black rhinos can reach 55 to 71 inches at the shoulder and typically weigh between 1,800 to 3,100 lbs. Keratin-rich horns that can grow up to 4.9 feet are used for digging up roots and breaking up branches for food

Friends of Animals brought its D.C. case just days after filing a similar suit in Brooklyn, N.Y.

PETA, short for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, took aim at the permits with a lawsuit of its own, filed in Virginia.

Meanwhile pro-hunting groups have brought their own litigation after Delta Airlines adopted a worldwide ban against the shipment of lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo trophies.

Delta defended its ban - inspired by backlash from the hunting of a beloved Zimbabwe lion named Cecil - just this past January.

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