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Season 14 | Episode 2

Wild Things

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(Image Credit: Andrea Mongia)

What does conservation really means in the 21st century? First, we meet a woman with a bird in her backyard who upends our whole sense of what we may have to give up to keep a wild creature wildWhen the conservationists showed up at Clarice Gibbs’ door and asked her to take down her bird feeders down for the sake of an endangered bird, she said no. Everybody just figured she was a crazy bird lady. But writer Jon Mooallem went to see her and discovered there was much more to this story. Mrs. Gibbs tells us her surprising side of the tale, and together with Joe Duff, we struggle with the realization that keeping things wild in today's world will be harder than we ever would’ve thought.

Then, we meet Corey Knowlton, a professional hunter who pays $350,000 to hunt and endangered animal, while trying to save the whole species. He’s a professional hunter, who guides hunts all around the world, so going to Africa would be nothing new.  The target on the other hand would be. And so too, he quickly found, would be the attention. 

Producer Simon Adler follows Corey as he dodges death threats and prepares to pull the trigger.  Along the way we stop to talk with Namibian hunters and government officials, American activists, and someone who's been here before - Kenya’s former Director of Wildlife, Richard Leakey.   All the while, we try to uncover what conservation really means in the 21st century.



Joe Duff, Corey Knowlton, Richard Leakey and Jon Mooallem

Produced by:

Simon Adler

Comments [34]

jezebel from Cape Town, Sourh Africa

An exceptionally well-presented piece; I particularly like the way you've encouraged us to empathise with individual experience in order to better understand their position in the debate. I am against hunting but admit I felt Corey's passion though I failed to get my head around his argument as set out eloquently in his final monologue and came away disturbed.
However, you also failed. You failed to explore a key element that calls into question the culling of mature male rhino in the (so-called) wild : the gene pool. Removing rogue alpha males who are aggressive ensures individuals with weaker genes will proliferate (as they would have been done in by such bulls left to do their natural bidding). This is counter-conservation...unless the vision is to keep rhino like captives on game fans with controlled breeding programmes, in which case, they will ultimately die out, anyway.

It's imperative to explore the alternate model where we put the whole of nature first and cease playing god whilst calling it OUR "nature". Think wildlife corridors to create wild lands where land is "taken", and international legislation and private sector support. Think spirit, the one we are all, innately connected to, the one that delivera whole eco-systems, not ego-gasms.

Jul. 29 2016 10:29 AM
Peter Bovenmyer from Madison, WI

If Corey Knowlton was so concerned about preserving black rhinos, why didn't he just donate $350,000 directly to the preserve? No logic there.

May. 13 2016 04:03 PM
Rodolfo Soriano-Núñez from from Mexico City

This is the most painful RL episode to hear. I have gone over it for the third time trying to understand the PH's approach and I simply can do it. Sadly you only provide one counterpoint to the whole thesis of killing is good to conservation. Please, more balance for the next one...

Apr. 30 2016 06:00 PM
AMC from SF

I was very disappointed that you talked only about the private game reserves in Namibia and ignored the many amazing national parks like Etosha, Waterberg Plateau, Namib-Naukluft. Those wonderful parks allow animals to live naturally and are supported by thriving eco tourism. Etosha contains a salt pan which supports and amazing array of wildlife and measures almost 9,000 square miles. Namib-Naukluft is more than 19,000 square miles of the most amazing scenery on earth. These much larger parks support the animals, preserve wild spaces, and are more than self funded by ecotourism. The sport hunters you focus on are less than 15% of the tourism in Namibia. The national parks not only protect animals but also benefit the country as a whole, rather than a few private individuals. The heart of wild Nambia lies in these public resources, not the colonial holdover of private hunting game parks. By suggesting that conservation requires hunting, this episode is a disservice to both the animals and Namibia. As a long time listener, I do not feel this was up to your usual standards (I have heard every radiolab episode and often recommend you to friends).

Apr. 02 2016 12:40 PM
The Voice of Reason from Boston MA

Here are the simple facts:

They paid for a hunting tag, that went to conservation.
They killed an animal, that had already killed others, and could NOT sire new ones.
They ate the meat, and donated the rest to other to eat.

Bottom line, a win all around. The hunters win. Nature wins. Humanity wins.

Mar. 28 2016 10:26 PM
Kurt Tank from NJ

Judging from comments, a lot of people were explained in school that meet comes from refrigerator, hunters are evil, and subsistance farmers and tribesmen of Africa would put their land to good use if only they were given...

Mar. 28 2016 10:00 PM

Hello. Radio Lab -- Good for you presenting a show like this. I'm a lover of the outdoors, certified Florida Master Naturalist, paddle trip guide, den leader, avid birder, blah, blah, blah. I do not hunt. I do not fish. Have nothing against them, just not into doing those things. I do know that the Namibian people would've shot the rhino. And they would still need the money for conservation management. That isn't cheap. We don't spend enough here in the US on it...and we are loaded with money. We should all skip spending so much on eating our steaks and other animal products, and maybe pick up trash on a local trail, get our pets fixed, use less energy/oil, feed our homeless, send money to ngo's that teach third world people how to make water filters, and send Namibia money regularly to save the black rhino. They will still shoot the old bulls that are having a negative impact. We should see this report as an opportunity to figure out how to get the funding without letting the hunters foot the bill. Maybe send your refund check to Namibia this year...or pool it all together and buy the next tag. Oh, well. Probably not. See you at Longhorn's this Saturday.

Mar. 28 2016 06:16 PM
kathy palof from Wisconsin

I'm just disappointed you didn't ask these questions:
1) Corey says he was doing his bud a favor by offering $350k for the rhino hunt. You didn't balk at this ridiculous statement; Corey was making himself the victim at every turn.
2) In Africa, the guides know this man paid a lot of money and only has a short time. "Oh, there that rhino there was mean to another rhino." Can't you just see how these guides are making this shit up to satisfy the American hunter who is putting tremendous pressure on them to get a damn rhino.
After your story, I just get so upset with all the media that is failing us.

Mar. 28 2016 09:06 AM
Robert from Texas

How grateful we should all be to this man and all hunters for saving the worlds wildlife. Certainly nobody else could possibly do as much.
It's called hunting for a reason not a conservation trip or a philanthropy trip its hunting! And this has nothing to do with hunting deer and elk etc. and the revenue supporting bloated populations and predator killing to protect herds for hunters. Those are other issues.
This is about big game trophies. When was the last time Corey Knowlton ate rhino steaks in Rockwall. If he and all those like him cared as much as they say about conservation he/they would be happy to contribute money without the need to kill. Millions donate to non profits to protect wildlife and seek only one thing, true conservation.
Hunting is Corey Knowltons' primary motive and if he can buy an animal he obviously will. The hunt, the kill and the trophy because he is a killer of wildlife first and foremost not a conservationist. And the term "hunting" doesn't apply because in many cases it's a canned hunt with a selected animal in a restricted area like his black rhino "hunt" which was justified on the basis that the old male rhino was a trouble maker and could no longer breed. No different than any other old male rhino.
A majestic and powerful animal reduced to a wall trophy. That’s a trophy “hunters” ego. What a sad ending

Mar. 28 2016 12:54 AM

I have to agree with the comments stating that this story seemed really imbalanced. I think the issue was a skilled debater, Mr. Knowles, against an ineffectual interviewer. How could he not ask, "If what you really care about is the preservation of species, as you keep insisting, why not simply donate your money to that? Why not donate even more, and buy even more control into how the money is directed into conservation?" A simple and disarming question. I can't believe it wasn't part of the story.

Mar. 27 2016 10:15 PM

I agree with the sentiments of many commentators in this feed. My guess is that you're planning to do a Part II to this story offering the opposing views/facts from environmentalists and ecologists along with deeper insights regarding the money trail, yes? To leave the program where it stands seems very short-sighted and irresponsible to me. Now that you've done the devils advocate side of the story, please follow up with the Promoter of the Cause's side of things. Thank you.

Mar. 27 2016 04:06 PM
Nate from Florida

Seriously, Radiolab? You give a platform to Corey to speak? Wow, you just lost all credibility you had. Epic fail.

Mar. 27 2016 11:26 AM

I was surprised at the limitations of this story. Usually Radiolab provides a nuanced context for their stories. There are three key contexts missing.

First. There was no effort in this piece on conservation to interview conservationists from Africa - especially from Namibia and Kenya. There was only one mention of colonialism.

Second. There was no mention of the underlying economic structure of these trophy hunts - where does the money actually go? There are groups like the Safari Club international that strategically lobby officials to block increases in environmental protection in places like Namibia. And what are moral and environmental consequences of monetizing life in this way? Why is land owned by foreigners with large game farms? Who regulates these game farms?

Third. An interview with an ecologist would have been helpful. The show discussed conservation of individual species. But this is also an old model of conservation. There was no understanding provided about the set of environmental relations species provide. What is the relationship between rhinos in this case and the landscape?

Without these context we as listeners are invited to buy into a commodified understanding of the animal and some sort of easily consumed drive on the part of all humans to hunt. Such a conclusion is absurd. Trophy hunting is the result of a specific economic system designed to exploit faraway land, people and animals for short-term profit.

Mar. 27 2016 04:01 AM
mitch diamond from Virginia

Your big game hunting program today was naive and irresponsible to an extreme.
You must know that the funds raised by these auction hunts are often siphoned off by corrupt officials, that the stories about why the animals need to be destroyed are often false, and that even if the killing was needed, it should be a time for professionals to carry it our humanely and to be sorrowful about the need to do it. The joy in your hunters voice about the opportunity to kill a large and powerful sentient being was what was most disgusting. Sometimes killing is necessary, but killing as a joyful sport is hugely offensive and disgusting.
And, finally, the sane voice of Mr Leakey saying that even if all the other reasons are not sufficient - this sort of killing to raise funds just further justifies the killing itself - was largely drowned out by the cries of pleasure from your primary voice.

Mar. 26 2016 07:44 PM
Ray and Sandra from USA

We have always enjoyed the Radio Lab program, until today. The program on the conservation of endangered species does not fit the definition of a well-balanced news presentation on how to deal with this problem. When you allow one extremist (Cory Knowles) to hijack your program and spew his self-involved beliefs on "preserving" the many species at risk in our world today, you do the conservation movement a great disservice. It seemed at times during your report that it was your intention to offer the idea of killing these animals (as long as the killer paid a high enough price for "conservation") as a viable choice, and also as the only option to save the world's animals from extinction. Remember that these animals coexisted for many eons before humans came and encroached on their habitat. Richard Leakey was excellent, but was given just a five-minute piece, and at one point the mention of just separating the animals from the people was mentioned as another alternative. We love to observe and take photographs of wildlife in their natural environment, and have spent lots of money to go to Africa and many other places to observe these creatures and so have many other people from all over the is BIG BUSINESS and it is called ECOTOURISM! We heard nothing in your report on this alternative, where frankly it is a lot more difficult to get a good "shot" than it is with a gun, and ends with nothing dead. Additionally, as the report described, these animals are "lightning fast", "huge", and have "spears" on their heads. This villainizing wording does not help the conservationist cause at all, and helps the report sound as if it is arguing for the extermination of all animals, not their protection.

Mar. 26 2016 07:34 PM

Maybe the hunters did not have arithmetic in school. 10 rhinos minus 1 shot equals 9 rhinos.

Mar. 26 2016 05:49 PM
Pamela W from USA

What a disgusting story, and what a disgusting program to promote the myths that killing = conservation and that trophy hunting is acceptable and even admirable. The great white hunter states that he grew up and "came from nothing." After listening to the program I conclude that he has definitely ended up as nothing. He represents the most contemptible and repulsive human being -- the one who enjoys dominating and inflicting suffering and who considers such filth a source of pride and glory. I just can't escape the obvious parallel with other perverts like pedophiles. I'm sure they feel the same sense of pride and satisfaction as the great white hunter.

I do think that cruelty like this rends the fabric of the world and floods it with ill being and grief that taints us all.

Mar. 26 2016 04:21 PM
Donna Vorce from Mid-west usa

Would those posting disparaging remarks about the topic please state whether you are vegan, vegetarian or meat eater? You cannot, logically, be against this situation if you eat animals. Whether YOU kill the cow pig chicken lamb goat or ANOTHER human kills it - something still DIES so you can eat it.

Unless you're a Jain or a vegan you don't really have a logical leg to stand on being against the hunters who still care to hunt their own meat rather than let someone else kill a stressed out factory meat animal.

The auction for the rhino tag seemed crazy to me until I was informed of the BIOLOGICAL reasoning behind the idea. Media gives us only enough to get emotional. By then the actual BIOLOGY behind the proposed action gets totally lost or worse IGNORED.

Mar. 26 2016 04:19 PM
Robert from Colorado

Why don't hunters hunt each other? That's what they really want to do. They tell themselves stories about how killing is "natural," but the truth is, they are afraid of death, afraid they are impotent and insignificant. Hasn't murder always existed? Isn't it just as "natural" as hunting animals for sport?

Mar. 26 2016 04:11 PM
Bret Bachelor from Florida

It was an interesting story. I don't have much use for true trophy hunting, but I understand that the animals in this type of hunt are used, down to the bones and sinew, by local tribes, so I find it less odious than the trophy hunters in the states who don't use the animals they kill.

Whether you agree or disagree with hunting, this was an interesting perspective on this type of hunt. The point that was made that the hunting will take place one way or the other was the most important take away from the story. You either regulate it, or it will run unchecked. The idea of a hunt free zone is just not going to work.

Mar. 26 2016 03:45 PM
Jenny from New Orleans

Life and death are part of the natural cycle of things. Hunting is not something monsters do, it's something humans have done to stay alive since before we were humans. Since forever. This is something biologists understand. Anyone who says otherwise is in denial, especially because the way their food is produced is far more "unnatural". Science determines the hunting limits, and the hunting helps pay to preserve the animals. A hunter that loves hunting, respects the animals, is a far better fate for an endangered rhino than being taken down by impoverished poachers. Which is what will happen if the money from big hunts weren't in place to pay the game wardens who guard the endangered species from the poachers, to employ local community members to alleviate local poverty, etc. The system would implode. I have worked as a biologist in Southern Africa, and I have seen the big hunt system in action. It is working. Nothing is perfect, everything is an experiment. This experiment has been tested, proven, and is working, so why should we get rid of it?

Mar. 26 2016 03:38 PM
Patricia Bannister from High Point NC

Thai black rhino you're exclaiming over is NOT an IT. HE is NOT a thing. Your guide knows better and shows respect. LEARN from him.
Thank you.

Mar. 26 2016 01:42 PM
susanpub from Tulsa

Seriously? This is a no-brainer (except apparently for the moron who doesn't have a brain to think it through - I mean the auction winner/hunter). He's obligated to give the money, so give the freakin' money but don't kill the rhino. This guy absolutely deserves to be vilified, but knock it off with the "you should be killed" crap. That's the stuff of trolls. That kind of statement immediately discredits you opinion.

Mar. 26 2016 12:45 PM
Joe Momma

Corey Knowles and his buddies and ignorant supporters can go f*ck themselves with their weapons of animal destruction, these people should be in jail for murder... And if there was any justice THEY would be hunted down and killed with their own guns

Mar. 25 2016 10:04 PM
Joe Momma

Hey Scott go eff yerself with a hunting rifle ya freaking right wing a-hole

Mar. 25 2016 09:53 PM
Sarah from North Carolina

I love Radio Lab but I have never been as repelled by the (content of ) a RadioLab story as I am this evening.
Cory Knowles's zeal for killing fellow creatures-- and his (and others') sick rationale that this somehow is related to conserving those animals-- is as disturbing as listening to the minute-by-minute progress of the hunt of that disgusting Swissman-- who has enough human conscience to be disturbed when his shots don't kill a buck for several minutes, leaving the magnificent animal thrashing in the grass after making several heroic efforts to get back up and stay standing--but as soon as it's dead, proclaims "these are really good feelings." It's totally sick. And, sickening. And-- if you are really honest, a sensation you will ONLY, EVER hear from a man.
Testosterone plays a large role in the zeal for killing.

I come from a family of hunters, who hunted deer for venison; but taking pleasure in taking another animals' life-- as seems to be the norm with trophy hunters-- was never a part of it. I myself have such a hard time taking the life of, or contemplating the taking of the life of any other creature that I am working hard now toward abandoning eating meat altogether. And to you that might say "eating meat is the way of Nature" you can look at entire cultures doing just fine as vegetarians.

To address Knowles' argument, that the Rhinos being hunted are "rogue older males" who cause more damage to their own species than the hunters who take them out-- the fact is that IF these wild animals were not being overcrowded by HUMAN ENCROACHMENT into and onto their habitat, their behavior wouldn't turn so psychopathic. Every species in the world demonstrates psychopathic behavior when its natural need for healthy space and a web of Nature to exist within, is denuded-- Humans included. I would really love to see any research on the behaviour described here, say, 40-50 or 100 years ago. I would hazard a guess that, when their ability to roam across the hundreds of thousands of miles they were born to roam, was intact, older males rarely abused their fellow species-mates in the way that's described during the moments at the boneyard in Namibia in this story. Go a little beyond the surface. Understand the historical context.

Thank God you had the (one sane) voice of Richard Leaky to provide counterpoint-- he seemed to be the only one with a sane and humanitarian perspective and understanding, profiled in the segment. I understand that Cory Knowles *thinks* he's in the right and doing the right thing, but zealots have always so thought. That doesn't mean they're right. Leaky is to be commended for his commitment to understanding that the *message* to the rest of Humanity is the key element that stands any endangered species a chance at a future.

You tackled a tricky subject-- but still it made me sick. Heartsick especially.

Mar. 25 2016 09:26 PM

There is nothing new in big game hunter sociopaths rationalizing their need to fulfill their satisfaction to hunt and kill. Whether or not I agree with hunting, when people hunt for food there is a huge difference than trophy hunting. Cory starts the conversation by equating his rise to economic success with his ability to trophy hunt and eventually hunt endangered species, from an entirely different country and continent all for conservation, then he starts to cry. This man is bonkers. The couple who provide the wild animals are basically providing a canned hunt situation. Yet another example of the lunacy of the great white hunter meme. Cory is going over to save the black rhino in Africa...for the Africans. Pathetic. The couple who facilitate the canned hunt are no better, as they facilitate the commodification of the animals who are up for auction. When you hear these trophy hunters talk about the hunt before, during or after the hunt it's chilling and disturbing. They are as giddy as children about to play. Bizarre.

Mar. 25 2016 04:22 PM
Louisa from Leominster, MA

I guess you've never heard of eco-tourism? Have you guys EVER done a story involving animals in which the animals were protected and not regarded as mere commodities or tools for research?

Mar. 25 2016 01:16 PM

How much of the $350,000 actually went to protection of black rhinos or other species? Corey Knowlton repeatedly lays claim to the moral high ground by connecting his purchase with conservation; but is that a valid assertion? CNN reported that money went toward Namibia's anti-poaching efforts, but how much of that hits the ground, so to speak? And how does it look to Namibians to see wealthy foreign hunters paying to take an animal that is endangered and otherwise protected?

Human hunters certainly have a role to play in wildlife conservation, especially in situations where humans replace other top predators to limit some species from causing ecological damage (e.g. white-tailed deer in Pennsylvania, wild boar in the southern US). But in this case, do older non-reproductive rhinos usually kill younger rhinos, or is this an unfortunate result of confinement on a game reserve?

I was also surprised and dismayed to hear that it took four shots to bring that rhino down. Not only does that not sound like fun, it doesn't sound like ethical hunting. Surely a professional hunter would take care to make the cleanest, quickest kill possible...?

Personally, I'll stick to harvesting local game and donating to causes that protect endangered species without killing them.

Mar. 24 2016 03:39 PM
Sean from Montana

I'm a longtime fan of Radiolab and a hunter. I'm glad you did this story, however, I think by focusing on hunting in Africa and on wealthy individuals who can pay $350,000 for a tag, you missed the mark on the true hunter conservation model.

That model was actually built on a foundation of ordinary hunters and anglers choosing to pay for licenses and regulate their seasons and limits in the wake of unregulated killing that took species like the passenger pigeon from the planet. Without that, the U.S. would have far fewer game animals and no structure to regulate habitat and species. It wasn't a model based on wealthy people paying oversized amounts at club auctions to kill animals in the name of conservation.

The majority of funds that go to conservation in the U.S. come from hunters and anglers who purchase ordinary licenses and look to take game from their home state or states nearby. Additionally, a significant amount of federal funds come from taxes on the sale of hunting and fishing equipment and ammunition.

Personally, I hunt here in Montana because eating elk, deer, game birds and antelope from the place I live is far more satisfying to me than buying meat in the store. I know where my food comes from. I know what it ate, how it lived and how it died. And I take responsibility for it in the most direct of ways.

While I thought the story was well done and as usual made meaningful points, I think that too often people like me, who hunt for a connection to food and place are painted with the same brush as a someone who spends a half million dollars to fly halfway round the world and shoot an animal he'll never taste in a place he doesn't really know at all. I wouldn't argue that Cory's money doesn't help fund conservation, it does. But I would argue that it isn't truly the hunter conservation story that needs to be told. At least it's not the story of the hunters I know.

Thanks as always for provoking thought.

Mar. 23 2016 11:29 PM
Linda from Sacramento

I always enjoy listening to Radiolab. Today, as I was listening, I had to walk out of the kitchen, with tears running down my face. I couldn't listen any more, as the Swedish trophy hunter was firing multiple shots into his "big trophy buck." The program made clear the connection between conservation and hunting. I guess I just reject the premise that we must kill something to protect it. I admit I don't understand the urge or need to kill a wild animal that is not a threat to the person hunting it. Why not track and hunt wild game, to photograph them in their natural habitat, and then mount those beautiful photographs of living animals, on a "Trophy Game Wall?" Monies would still be paid to travel, hire guides, pay wardens, etc. and animals wouldn't have to die. Trophy hunters want to take the biggest, or "best" animal. These are the ones who should be protected so they can reproduce and improve the gene pool. Natural predators cull the old, the sick, the weak. They help keep species healthy. I sincerely hope a new model of preservation can be found that does not rely on auctioning off the lives of wild animals, to save them.

Mar. 23 2016 04:49 PM
Keith M. Carmany from Ogdensburg N.Y.

I always listen to radiolab and enjoy. I thought that you were going to step in it today. But you didn't. Congrats. I am a lifelong hunter. I believe in the western (American) version of conservation that Cory briefly explained. It works.
I am also a recently retired Registered Dietitian. Please let your faithful know that it's the best meat they can eat. Nutrition wise. And it is fun to procure. I know it's safe because I put it in my freezer.
Cory should be lauded for his bravery. If I had the money I would do the same. In the meantime I'll hunt and eat American deer, moose, etc. Thanks for the great and elucidating story today.

Mar. 23 2016 02:35 PM
B D Barnes from Virginia

I appreciated the manner in which this story was approached and presented, the listener was left to decide which direction the moral compass would point. As a hunter and an environmental professional, I see these battles being played out all across the natural resources conservation realm. Should we use natural resources in a managed way, or should we lock it all away and put up a "do not touch" sign? At the end of the day, prohibition has usually failed any time it has ever been tried. I would rather see a modicum of control and allow the poor peoples of the world to derive benefit from the rhinos, teak, or whatever else providence has seen fit to bless them with. Judgement is always easy from the comfort of "the west".

Mar. 23 2016 02:19 PM
Scott Martin from A place where we eat cuddly wildlife.

Man. I'd take 1 Corey over any 100 useless treehuggers. A t-shirt that says "Save the Rhino's" doesn't do squat, but he does.

Get a grip, hippies.

Mar. 23 2016 01:33 PM

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