By the start of the bidding, 60,000 people had signed an online petition and animal welfare groups said the auction in Texas sent an unsavoury message to the public.

An endangered east African black rhinoceros and her calf walk in Tanzania’s Serengeti park. Tom Kirkwood / Reuters
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Stop reading now if you are an animal lover. The auction for this week’s big ticket item caused such controversy that it had to be conducted under tight security. Demonstrators with placards chanted outside the venue in Texas.

Up for grabs last Saturday at the Dallas Convention Centre was a permit to hunt a black African rhino, an endangered species. The event was the highlight of an annual four-day get-together for big game hunters with the licence going to an unidentified bidder for US$350,000.

But by the start of the bidding, 60,000 people had signed an online petition against the auction and animal welfare groups said the auction sent an unsavoury message to the public. Jeffrey Flocken of the International Fund for Animal Welfare branded the event “a spectacle of killing an endangered species”.

Defenders of the sale argued that the proceeds would go towards protecting the species. The winner would be allowed to hunt an animal that was old, male and non breeding – likely to be targeted for removal anyway because of its aggressive behaviour.

“This is the best way to have the biggest impact on increasing the black rhino population,” Ben Carter, the executive director of the Dallas Safari Club, which sponsored the event, told The Independent.

According to conservation groups, there are about 4,000 black rhinos left in the wild, down from 70,000 in the 1960s. Of those, nearly 1,800 are in Namibia. The south-western African country sells five permits to hunt black rhino every year. This is the first time a licence has been put up for sale outside Namibia.

Before the sale, the organisers said they hoped to beat the previous record for a permit of $223,000 with some punters expecting it to fetch $1 million.

Although 30,000 people attended the convention, the winning bidder may come from anywhere in the world as telephone bids were also accepted.

The FBI is investigating death threats against members of the club, AP reported.

Q&A Also up for sale: Grannie

It’s sad there are so few rhinos left. Why is that?

Poaching of the mighty beasts is rampant because their horns are highly sought after for their supposed medical properties. Asia is a key market for poachers – especially Vietnam where rhino horn is though to cure cancer. Interestingly, though, rhino horns are not ivory like elephant tusks, but are made of keratin, the same substance as hair and nails.

Apart from the rhino hoopla what else is Namibia known for?

Namibia hit the headlines in 2006 – this time getting more positive PR – after Angelina Jolie decided to give birth to her daughter Shiloh there. She was struck by the beauty of the country after filming Beyond Borders in the country. Namibia is large and sparsely populated. The spectacular scenery is a huge tourist pull; sights include the Eupup waterfalls on the border with Angola.

You have “a liver” on your list of unsavoury items sold at auction. Is that allowed?

This particular liver was put up for sale by a man from Florida on eBay in September 1999. Bidding reached US$5.7 million before eBay cancelled it because the company does not in fact allow the sale of human organs on its site, according to Another weird eBay sale was the 10-year-old girl from the United Kingdom who tried to auction her grandmother. Grannie was listed as “annoying” but “cuddly”. EBay again cancelled the sale.