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'Exotic hunting' thrives in Texas


James Westhead
BBC News, Washington

As we bounce through the dusty undergrowth in a four-wheel drive, glimpsing rare antelope and even giraffes, we could be forgiven for thinking we are on safari in Africa - but we are not.

Scimitar-horned Oryx
Hunting unusual species is a multi-million dollar industry

This is the YO ranch in Texas. Its website proudly claims it is a "Mecca for hunting", with more than 50 different species including endangered animals from all over the world.

A price list offers a huge choice of rare species charging up to $8,500 a kill.

It is one of a staggering 500 ranches in Texas alone that in recent years have switched from raising longhorn cattle to the far more profitable, multi-million-dollar industry known as "exotic hunting", where hunters compete for the largest and most unusual trophies to display on their walls.

Our guide, YO hunting director Eric White, is keen to show how he carefully breeds and manages herds of rare antelope like the endangered scimitar-horned oryx - virtually extinct in its native Africa but thriving on his 6,000-acre (2,400-hectare) ranch in Texas.

"Hunters are amazed. Around every bend you never know what you're going to see," he says.

"You could see a zebra, an oryx or an addax deer. You can see animals here that you can almost no longer find in Africa or India.

"We are preserving entire species here in Texas."

Firing back

The only problem is that these species are being saved simply to be killed, often in a cruel and unsporting fashion, according to animal welfare campaigners.

Michael Markarian
These animals are on the brink of extinction, and we need to do everything we can to preserve them
Michael Markarian, HSUS

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) recently carried out an undercover investigation into exotic hunting in Texas.

Its investigators found many ranches were not as ethically run as the YO. They filmed animals that appeared so tame they did not run away from hunters and even approached them apparently believing they would be fed.

"In some of these facilities you can pick the animal you want and have it moved into a hunting pen then shoot it the next day," the Humane Society's Michael Markarian says.

"It's like picking a lobster out of a tank at a restaurant. It's not sportsmanship, there's no fair chase."

When they are shot, the society says, the animals usually die a slow and lingering death as hunters do not want to spoil their trophy by shooting them in the head.

YO hunting director Eric White
YO hunting director Eric White insists he is the real conservationist

Now the animal campaigners are firing back in the courts.

The society is challenging a recent decision by the Bush administration which granted a special exemption to hunting ranches, removing protection for certain endangered animals.

It means hunters can continue to hunt and kill three species of endangered antelope in captivity - the dama gazelle, the addax and the scimitar-horned oryx - so long as they give 10% of profits to conservation.

But the Humane Society's Michael Markarian counters: "These animals are on the brink of extinction, and we need to do everything we can to preserve them.

"Yet the United States government is saying the only way you can save animals is by shooting them. It's Orwellian logic. It's not conservation, it's nothing more than animal cruelty."

'Honourable activity'

On the YO ranch, Eric White insists it is he who is the real conservationist. He claims to have returned rare and endangered animals to help re-breeding programmes in their native countries.

If the captive-bred hunting exemption were removed, he argues, there would be no incentive for him or others to breed endangered species and the scimitar-horned oryx and the like would simply gradually die out.

Robert Brown
We're turning wild animals into domestic animals. The hunter is no longer using his instincts and his reflexes
Robert Brown
American Wildlife Society

"What species has the Humane Society ever saved?" he asks.

"They just want to save one animal - perhaps called Bambi - but we have a long-standing record of saving entire species and entire habitats. Hunting is the only way to generate enough dollars to do it."

However there are growing ethical concerns even within the American hunting community about this new highly-commercialised approach to a traditional sport.

Robert Brown, an experienced hunter and president of the American Wildlife Society, says:

"We're turning wild animals into domestic animals. The hunter is no longer using his instincts and his reflexes.

"That's deplorable and turns the public against what is an honourable activity necessary for wildlife management and may one day spoil hunting for the rest of us."

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