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Winner of black rhino hunting auction: My $350,000 will help save the species

By Ed Lavandera, CNN Correspondent
January 17, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Corey Knowlton won the Dallas Safari Club's auction for a black rhino hunting permit
  • For $350,000, he would be allowed to hunt the rare species in Namibia, in southern Africa
  • Critics are outraged, and Knowlton now has a security detail because of death threats
  • Knowlton: I'd hunt an old rhino past its breeding prime and vulnerable to attack in the wild

Dallas (CNN) -- Corey Knowlton is on edge sitting inside a Las Vegas hotel room, surrounded by a private security detail, explaining why he spent $350,000 for the chance to hunt a black rhinoceros in the southern African nation of Namibia.

"If I sound emotional, it's because I have people threatening my kids," Knowlton told CNN. "It's because I have people threatening to kill me right now [that] I'm having to talk to the FBI and have private security to keep my children from being skinned alive and shot at."

Knowlton was outed over social media as the winner of the Dallas Safari Club's auction for a black rhino hunting permit from the Namibian government last weekend. It didn't take long for the threats and vitriol to start pouring in.

"You are a BARBARIAN. People like you need to be the innocent that are hunted," posted one woman on Knowlton's Facebook page.

Some sounded even more sinister. "I find you and I will KILL you," read another threat. "I have friends who live in the area and will have you in there sights also," wrote another commenter.

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"A hunter afraid of being hunted?! How do you think the rhino feels idiot?" responded one woman to Knowlton's fears.

Despite the backlash, Knowlton has decided to engage the raging debate over how to protect an endangered species, such as the black rhino, by putting down his own money to help save the species and raise awareness about wildlife conservation.

"I respect the black rhino," said Knowlton. "A lot of people say, 'Do you feel like a bigger man?' or 'Is this a thrill for you?' The thrill is knowing that we are preserving wildlife resources, not for the next generation, but for eons."

Knowlton, 35, is a Dallas-based hunting consultant for The Hunting Consortium, an international guide service. He's also the co-host of a hunting show on The Outdoor Channel called "Jim Shockey's The Professionals." Knowlton's online biography says he's hunted more than 120 species on almost every continent.

Hunting has long been a passion of his -- Knowlton said he started hunting as a young boy. He said he grew up poor, but made a good living in oil production.

"I'm a hunter. I want to experience a black rhino. I want to be there and be a part of it. I believe in the cycle of life. I don't believe that meat, you know, comes from the grocery store. I believe that animal died and I respect it," Knowlton said Thursday night on CNN's "Piers Morgan Live."

He describes himself as a passionate conservationist and desperately wants to explain to his critics why hunting one old black rhino can help save critically endangered species around the world. He knows it's a difficult conversation full of scathing-hot emotion.

Humane Society: We'll block his trophy

The Humane Society opposed the Dallas Safari Club Auction and says it plans to fight Knowlton's efforts to bring the black rhino trophy into the United States.

If Knowlton does hunt and kill the black rhino, he'll need a special permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to import the animal into the country under the Endangered Species Act.

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society, wrote in an online blog post that killing one endangered animal to save the species is an "Orwellian idea" and worries that it will inspire hunters to pay millions of dollars for the chance to kill orangutans, elephants or tigers.

"Where will it end?" wrote Pacelle. "The first rule of protecting the rarest animals in the world is to protect each living member of that species."

Helicopters versus drones: The cost of the war on rhinos

But Knowlton argues that, in this instance, killing one black rhino will protect the species throughout Namibia and that this idea is supported by scientists and conservationists around the world.

Of the world's approximately 5,000 black rhinos, about 1,700 are in Namibia.

Knowlton says the Namibian government has identified a handful of black rhinos that can be hunted. These are animals that are old, no longer capable of breeding and are considered a dangerous threat to other younger animals.

He said the threat to the rhino is from its own kind. "One of the other ear-tagged killer rhinos is going to injure it. And then either lions or hyenas are going to drag it down. It's going to die [in] a horrible manner, slowly."

So Knowlton argues, why not let a hunter pay a massive amount of money to take out a threat to the rest of the species. The Dallas Safari Club says the $350,000 paid by Knowlton will be donated to the Namibian government's black rhino conservation efforts.

"As much as I would love them all to live forever, they are going to die," said Knowlton. "The older males are killing each other, and something has to be done about it."

Knowlton's supporters: Science backs him up

Knowlton's supporters say this conservation strategy is based in smart science. The International Union for Conservation of Nature supported the Dallas Safari Club's black rhino hunting permit auction.

The union says its mission is to work with governments and conservation groups around the world to find "practical solutions" to conservation efforts around the world.

It also says "trophy hunting is a fundamental pillar of Namibia's conservation approach and instrumental in its success." And that "well-managed recreational hunting and trophy hunting" have had a positive impact in "stimulating population increases for rhino."

But other animal rights organizations have criticized this conservation strategy and argue that the better focus would be eco-tourism, raising money from people willing to pay to see endangered animals up close in the wild.

Knowlton says the intense and controversial publicity leading up to the Dallas Safari Club auction scared several serious bidders away. Knowlton said going into the auction there were about 10 serious bidders, but by the time the bidding started, that number had dwindled to about three.

"It was the most unfortunate thing. There were people willing to spend $500,000 to a million dollars," said Knowlton. "After what I'm going through now, I understand why they decided not to do it."

Knowlton says he does not yet when he'll schedule his hunting expedition to Namibia. A great deal of planning and preparation must be done, he said.

Knowlton wants to preserve the black rhino's hide and then donate the rhino meat to needy communities in Namibia.

"I speak with my heart. I'm passionate about this," said Knowlton. "I think with the money that I contributed, with everything that is at stake and everything there is to be gained by the world to learn about sustainable use, I think this could be the greatest experience of my life."

Knowlton says if the hunt doesn't go perfectly it could also be one of the worst experiences of his life.

"I don't think it makes me a bigger man; I actually think, Piers, I think it could make me a dead man," he told CNN's Morgan.

"This is probably the most dangerous situation that I'll ever be in outside of walking around right now with all the people that want to kill me."

Gallery: 20 years of photographing in Africa

CNN's Jason Morris contributed to this report.

Watch Piers Morgan Live weeknights 9 p.m. ET. For the latest from Piers Morgan click here.

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