By Jon Herskovitz
(Reuters) - A permit to hunt a black rhino in Namibia sold for $350,000 at an auction in Dallas on Saturday with proceeds going to protect the endangered animals despite protests from animal rights groups that saw the sale as immoral conservation.
The license allows for the killing of a single, post-breeding bull, with Namibian wildlife officials on hand for the hunt to make sure an appropriate animal is selected.
The Dallas Safari Club had been expecting the permit to bring $250,000 to $1 million at an auction held during its annual convention. The hunt will help in managing the population and provide an underfunded Namibian government hard cash in the expensive battle to thwart poachers, it said.
"Biologists in Namibia were hopeful that a U.S.-based auction would produce a record amount for rhino conservation, and that's exactly what happened," said club Executive Director Ben Carter.
"These bulls no longer contribute to the growth of the population and are in a lot of ways detrimental to the growth of the population because black rhinos are very aggressive and territorial. In many cases, they will kill younger, non-breeding bulls and have been known to kill calves and cows," Carter said this week
More than 75,000 people signed an online petition at www.causes.com to stop the sale, saying black rhinos cannot be protected if they are allowed to be killed.
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.
Both countries allow for a few, carefully regulated hunts under internationally approved guidelines each year with proceeds going to fund conservation.
Rhino protection has grown more expensive in the last few years due to a surge in poaching fueled by international crime syndicates to feed demand in places such as Vietnam, where horn is used as a traditional medicine and sold at prices higher than gold.
Wayne Pacelle, chief executive officer and president of the Humane Society of the United States, said the group has a general objection to trophy hunting and sees as morally questionable raising money for conservation by selling permits to kill endangered species.
"If we are going to put a price tag on the most endangered animals in the world, we are going to go down a very dangerous path," Pacelle said.
Tom Milliken, leader of the elephant and rhino program for the international wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, said Namibia had 1,750 black rhino as of the end of 2012 and the population has been steadily increasing under good management and protection.
"TRAFFIC believes Namibia has demonstrated a sound conservation policy for its rhinos over the years and does not oppose Namibia's legitimate execution of its hunting quota," Milliken said in an email.
Nearly 950 rhino were killed by poachers in South Africa in 2013, its environment ministry said.
In Namibia, little poaching has occurred over the past decade, with only 10 animals killed since 2006 - half of which were last year, TRAFFIC said.
Up until about 2010, only a handful rhinos were poached in Africa but the number shot up when rumors circulated about the same time in Vietnam that a minister's relative was cured of cancer by rhino horn. There is no basis in science to support the claim.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)