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Behind the Fence: Inside the Canned Hunt Industry

Published 12/15/03
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 34 Number 4, Winter 2003

Dreaming of your next vacation? How about a wildlife safari where you can view exotic and endangered species from Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia? No time for a trip around the world? No problem! Your tour can take place right here in the U.S.A. As an added bonus, you can stalk these animals in a pen, shoot them at point-blank range, and take their mounted heads home as trophies. For a price, this shameful sojourn can be yours, courtesy of the federal government.

Although this outrageous scenario sounds illegal, it’s not. It’s a “canned hunt,” and it’s big business.

A canned hunt is a commercial event that takes place on private land, often called a “ranch,” where animals are fenced in and unable to escape. Hunters pay a fee to the ranch operator for a guaranteed kill. Canned hunt victims typically include deer, elk, and other “big game” animals — including endangered and threatened species.

Of the 12 U.S. ranches holding current or recent government-issued endangered species permits, 11 are located in Texas and 1 is in Florida. The animal most commonly hunted at these ranches is the barasingha, or “swamp deer,” native to India and Nepal. Other targeted endangered or threatened species include Eld’s bow-antlered deer, red lechwe, Arabian oryx, and several species of antelope. The going rate for a canned hunt varies; one ranch website advertises a guaranteed kill of a barasingha for $4,000.

There Ought to Be a Law

Most people think that the killing endangered species for “sport” should be outlawed. In fact, it is — sort of. Complex legal loopholes and variable policy interpretations still allow this barbaric practice to occur. While sorting out the regulations, policies, and exemptions can be a tricky endeavor, it is important that animal advocates attempt to understand which imperiled animals are protected, and under what conditions.

The U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), passed in 1973, now recognizes more than 1,700 plant and animal species as endangered or threatened. In ruling on implementation of the ESA, the Supreme Court described it as "the most comprehensive legislation for the preservation of endangered species ever enacted by any nation.”1 The ESA identifies and aims to protect endangered species throughout the world, not just within the U.S. Presently, more than 550 foreign species are recognized in the Act.

The ESA prohibits the taking, import or export, or selling or offer to sell of any listed endangered or threatened species. The Act defines “taking” as to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or attempt to engage in any such conduct. An exception is made by allowing the issuance of a permit authorizing otherwise-prohibited activity for scientific purposes, for enhancing the propagation of the survival of the species, or for the incidental taking of endangered wildlife.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issues all such permits, and grants canned hunting ranches permission to kill endangered and threatened species as trophy animals based on “the propagation of the survival of the species” exception. In order to qualify for the exemption, the ranches must obtain an “interstate and foreign commerce, export and cull” permit from the Service before the ranch can sell live or dead trophy animals to hunters.

Dubious Logic, Deadly Policy

The FWS argues that the canned hunts of individual endangered animals are part of the “propagation of the survival of the species” when the hunts generate revenues that can be directed to organizations conducting conservation efforts on behalf of that species in the wild. The agency issues and renews canned hunting permits each year, even though no current written policy actually allows the practice of culling endangered species under the guise of conservation.

API actively opposes the government’s nearly automatic granting of canned hunt permits. While we recognize the legislative intent of exemption for the enhancement of species survival, we do not believe that canned hunts support that goal, and in fact find that they violate the very spirit and intent of the ESA.

Canned hunting facilities breed species for the sole purpose of producing excess animals as “trophies” for hunters. In documents obtained by API through the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the FWS itself acknowledges that “the take, interstate or foreign commerce and export or import of sport-hunted trophies of endangered species does not serve to enhance the survival of the species” and “these animals are surplus to any captive breeding program, and reintroduction is unlikely due to the unknown genetic relationship of the animals” [emphasis added].2 Yet the FWS continues to grant these permits under the very exemption that they claim is not being met.

Even worse, as of this writing, the Bush administration and FWS had proposed policy changes that would greatly expand commercial exploitation of endangered species from other countries. API suspects that pressure from animal-use interests led to these proposed changes.

In the past, the ESA has been interpreted so that it prohibits the commercial importation of endangered plants and animals. All endangered species killed in canned hunts are captive-bred in the U.S. This would change if the new policy is approved and adopted.

Whereas previous policy generally protected foreign endangered species from commercial exploitation and slaughter, the proposed policy would allow for the capture, kill, and import of endangered species from abroad, under the guise of conservation and so-called “sustainable use.” Among the activities that would be allowed if the policy is adopted: the trophy hunting of endangered species abroad; the capture and importation of foreign endangered animals to U.S. canned hunt facilities, circuses, zoos, and the exotic pet trade; and an expansion or resumption of the trade in the body parts of endangered species, including ivory from African elephants and the skin of the Morelet’s crocodile, a species native to Mexico and Central America.

The Bush administration claims that allowing such activities would enhance funding for foreign conservation programs. Opponents, including API, argue that a “kill animals to save them” approach is fraught with dangers both to individual animals and to the species as a whole.

Aside from the questionable ethics of such a philosophy and varying definitions on what uses are “sustainable,” many experts fear that the policy, if enacted, would open the floodgates to poaching and smuggling, as poorer countries seek to profit from increased U.S. demand for exotic animals and animal parts. Increased illegal trade could easily outweigh any gains made through higher funding for the few foreign conservation programs that have been shown to be effective.

API submitted extensive comments to the government about the risks of liberalizing requirements for authorized interstate or foreign commerce in endangered wildlife. A decision on the proposed policy was pending at press time.

Rubber-Stamping Permits

The U.S. government places few obstacles in the path of canned hunts.

Currently, a canned hunting ranch receives an FWS permit as long as it fills out an application, submits a $25 permit fee, and agrees to donate a portion of the hunt proceeds to an organization that operates a conservation program for the hunted species in the animal’s native range. A ranch must submit three pieces of documentation in order for its permit to be renewed: (1) an annual report including an inventory of all animals and the number of animals killed; (2) an accounting of all funds collected and donated as a result of the permitted activities; and (3) a letter from the conservation organization confirming that a contribution was received, including the amount, and that the money was channeled to a program for the authorized species and/or habitat.

Even this nominal process contains flaws that make it of dubious worth as a mechanism for funding conservation efforts. One major problem is that the FWS has never drafted regulations or a policy to ensure consistent handling of these applications. Based on API’s review of FWS documents, no minimum donation level has been set for the approval of permit applications. We found that 3 applications offered to donate 5 percent of the hunt proceeds to organizations operating conservation programs, while 5 applications offered 10 percent, 2 offered 15-20 percent, and in 1 case, the amount of the donation wasn't even mentioned — yet all of the permit applications were approved.

In our review of government documentation, API also learned that the FWS actively promotes the killing of these individual endangered animals by instructing and/or assisting canned hunting ranches on how to successfully complete the application process, despite the fact that no official, set policy for permit approval even exists.

Making a Mockery of Conservation

Perhaps even more disturbingly, some of the donations raised by the permitted trophy hunts and directed to conservation organizations fail to reach programs that actually help the hunted species.

For example, one of the permitted canned hunt facilities, Galloway Exotic Ranch in Pearsall, Texas, offers trophy hunts for both barasingha and Eld’s deer. As part of the permit process, the Galloway Ranch stated that it intended to donate funds to conservation efforts in Dudhwa National Park and to the Terai Arc Project in India. Sounds fine — until you examine this plan more closely.

The Dudhwa National Park is best known as a habitat of barasingha, or “swamp deer.” Other species resident to the park include tigers, leopards, the Indian one-horned rhinoceros, wild elephants, otters, and crocodiles. Notably absent from this list: Eld’s deer.

Nor do Eld’s deer live in the Terai Arc. Conservation programs for rhinoceros, elephants, and tigers are active in the Terai Arc ecoregion, which is also home to barasingha. Tigers are one of barasingha’s natural predators. So funds generated by canned hunts of barasingha in the U.S. are then being funneled to programs that help an animal that preys on the barasingha in its native habitat.

While these may seem like trivial details — after all, money is going to some sort of conservation program for some sort of endangered species — they shouldn’t be dismissed. These specific failures are representative of the larger failure of the entire canned hunt exemption. When the Galloway Ranch neglected to provide funds to programs that actually protected the species of animal hunted at its facility, it made a mockery of the FWS’s claim that killing individual animals could benefit the species as a whole. Yet similar canned hunt permits continue to be approved year-in, year-out.

For more than three years, API has analyzed and commented upon applications for canned hunt permits and renewals. From our vantage point, the FWS has simply rubber-stamped each application as a matter of course. Permits are granted and renewed even when applicants fail to provide any supporting documentation that the animals to be hunted are truly “excess” or that the minimal funds donated will actually go to programs that help the hunted species in their native habitat.

It’s abundantly clear that canned hunting facilities are interested only in commercial gain, not in propagation of endangered species. By allowing these ranches to operate virtually unchecked, the FWS is subverting the intent of the Endangered Species Act, undercutting its own mission of protecting imperiled populations, and supporting the killing of animals for sport and profit.


  1. TVA v. Hill, 437 U.S. 153m 180 (1978)
  2. Letter signed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to John J. Jackson, representing 777 Ranch (June 16, 1999)

Help API End Canned Hunts!

API has employed all administrative tools at our disposal to oppose the canned hunting of endangered species. At every opportunity, we have submitted written comments opposing new and renewal permit applications by canned hunt facilities. We will continue to do so, for as long as it takes to end this abhorrent practice.

But we need your help! The government needs to hear from individuals on this issue, as well. We want the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to know just how many people are opposed to its blatant support of the canned hunting industry.

Please write polite letters and faxes to the FWS encouraging it to stop the “rubber stamping” of canned hunt applications and to end its practice of routinely allowing these ranches to kill endangered and threatened species under the guise of conservation. Urge it to adopt a strong policy against “killing animals to save them,” and to uphold the true spirit of the Endangered Species Act.


Mr. Tim Van Norman
Office of Management Authority
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
4401 North Fairfax Drive, Room 700
Arlington, VA 22203
Fax 703-358-2281

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