Radiolab | Podcast Review | September 10, 2015 | By

Radiolab: The Rhino Hunter

Is this really how conservation should work?

This week, Radiolab joins the exceedingly charismatic Corey Knowlton on an unexpected adventure.  For most of us, “unexpected adventure,” conjures images of buses ridden one stop too far or shots taken one hour too late. For Knowlton, an unexpected adventure requires $350,000, a trip to Namibia, and gun.

Knowlton, a trophy hunter, promises a friend to open the bidding at an auction for a permit to hunt the nearly-extinct black rhino. Knowlton offers the minimum—$350,000—to get the ball rolling. To his surprise, there are no other bidders; the negative press that comes with killing one of the earth’s 5,000 remaining black rhinos has scared everyone off. Permit in hand, Knowlton heads to Namibia to do what he is now legally entitled to do. And Radiolab goes with him.

Knowlton, an avid hunter and avowed conservationist, wants to keep animals alive. So he kills them. Cut to a chorus of devotees at the Western Hunting and Conservation Expo explaining, “The animals would not be alive without us hunting them. They would go extinct.” This, at first blush, sounds like the conservation equivalent of your middle-school crush “letting” you do their homework.

The money big game hunters pay helps support protected animals and defend against poachers. In Knowlton’s case, his black rhino permit is a license to kill an older, violent, post-reproductive rhino. The $350,000 he paid goes towards protecting the 4,999 black rhinos he doesn’t kill. Voila: conservation.

If you doubt Knowlton’s sincerity, hear him break down mid-interview: “God dang man, I want these people to get it so fucking bad.” What Knowlton wants us to understand is that, “death is inevitable, but the death of this species doesn’t have to be.” All animals die. Why not make that death worth something? Why not make it worth $350,000.

Knowlton explains that “wildlife doesn’t exist by accident any more.” It sounds weird to say, but animals are man-made. Animals exist because we have not yet killed them. In this world of man-made wildlife, money talks. And despite threats to burn down his house and, “rape his wife to death,” he just dropped $350K to protect the rhino. And this method of conservation works: many endangered species in Namibia have bounced back under this new system.

Of course, it’s also kind of bullshit, right? Knowlton could have easily spent $350,000 on the permit and then, you know, not killed the rhino. Wouldn’t it be better to donate the money to conservationists and kill only when necessary?

Knowlton and his peers are hunter-conservationists, and despite their instance that these dual allegiances—to the hunt, and to the species—can successfully coexist, occasionally, they don’t. In Namibia, producer Simon Adler joins men on a hunt for a water buck. After their third shot hits and fails to kill the animal, one hunter whispers, “This is not fun. This is not fun.” Is this really how conservation should work?

For Knowlton, questions of “should” are beside the point, because this is our reality:

“Unfortunately these animals don’t have that time. I’m not trying to out-smart anybody. It’s just a traditional method that’s worked. And until somebody comes up with a methodology that we can look at and say, ‘this is a better way,’ I’m going to continue to fight and believe in the traditional model. So now we’re going to ask ourselves these questions: how do we really, on an individual basis, value this animal’s survival on earth?”

People and governments could donate the money Corey and other big game hunters generate directly to the conservationist cause, but most of us have other priorities. We spend our money on necessities like health insurance, student loans, and groceries; governments fight wars and build bridges. Most of us don’t even have $350,000 to give. And so Corey Knowlton gets to kill the black rhino because you and I don’t pay $350,000 to save it.

About the Author

Will Warren is a founding editor at Audiologue, and covers Radiolab for the site. You can find him on Twitter @willpwarren or via email at

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