Last year, when Texas big game hunter Corey Knowlton purchased a $350,000 permit to hunt and kill a critically endangered black rhino in Namibia, he did so with the intention of bringing the dead animal back to the U.S. with him.
But that was before a Minnesota dentist shot Cecil, Zimbabwe’s most famous lion, and commercial carriers, under mounting public pressure, banned the transport of lion, elephant, tiger, and rhino trophies on their flights. United, American, and Delta Airlines all joined South African Airways and Emirates, which put such policies in place earlier in 2015, in enacting the ban.
So when Knowlton tried to bring his prized carcass back after a much-scrutinized May 2015 hunt, Delta allegedly denied his request to transport the animal from southern Africa. To Knowlton and a consortium of pro-hunting groups, that’s discrimination against hunters.
In a lawsuit filed Oct. 15, Dallas Safari Club, Houston Safari Club, Conservation Force, Knowlton, and others argue that Delta’s ban on big game trophy transport is unlawful, “robbing the species of the enhancement tourist hunting provides,” the suit claims.
Essentially Knowlton and the pro-hunting groups are arguing two points: Delta can’t discriminate against what its passengers can transport if it’s been deemed “legal cargo” by federal authorities, and the new ban is hindering conservation efforts raised through trophy hunting permit fees like Knowlton’s.
“Delta cannot discriminate against passengers or cargo,” the suit continues. “Trophies of the ‘Big Five’ [lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard, rhinoceros] are not dangerous goods. Delta’s irresponsible embargo appears to be based on misinformation and a misunderstanding of the legal status of these goods, and motivated by a desire to placate a noisy and ill-advised group of Facebook posters, at the expense of conservation programs, wildlife, livelihoods of local peoples, and the interests of plaintiffs.”
Delta Airlines has not responded to a request for comment regarding the suit.
The lawsuit reeks of a publicity stunt, according to Chris Green, executive director of Harvard Law School’s animal law program—and a bad one at that.
“I cannot think of a less sympathetic plaintiff to challenge Delta’s commonsense policy than Corey Knowlton—the Texan who paid to kill one of Africa’s rarest black rhinos,” Green said in an email. “No rational airline ever would want to be associated with transporting this endangered animal’s butchered body out of Africa just to go hang on some rich American’s wall.”
Green was integral in pushing the trophy transport issue into the public domain earlier this year. In May he created a petition calling for Delta to change its policies; it garnered nearly 400,000 signatures.
Now, with the ban in place, he sees the hunting groups’ court challenge and the arguments listed as “desperation.”
“Multiple studies (some of them by the hunting industry itself) have determined that only around 3 percent of trophy hunting revenues ever trickle down to the local communities impacted by such hunting,” Green wrote.
In one of these studies, it was shown that large, captivating species such as elephants are worth a lot more alive than dead—76 times more. That’s because tourists are willing to spend big bucks to visit ecotourism camps in Africa for the chance to see and photograph elephants. The study estimated that just one elephant, over the course of its life, would generate $1.6 million to the local economy compared with the $23,000 or so the animals’ tusks would bring to the black market from poaching or the $40,000 estimated cost for a 10-day legal elephant trophy hunt.
“As we saw with Cecil, nearly all of the income from big game hunting ends up concentrated in the hands of a few (often Western-run) hunting operations that have nothing to do with conservation,” Green wrote.
As for Delta not meeting its legal obligations as a “common carrier” and discriminating against hunters, Green said that’s a stretch.
Common carriers have certain obligations, but those typically are limited to services viewed as “universally necessary.”
“I highly doubt that any judge would agree that transporting dead animal trophies to assuage a hunter’s vanity falls into that class,” he said.
Additionally, hunters like Knowlton have options other than Delta for transporting their hunting trophies—UPS, FedEx, and South African Airways, which rescinded its ban in July—all allow hunting trophies to be transported.
Exactly when Delta denied Knowlton’s request is unclear.