With the largest white rhino population in the world and no funding to continue his project over the long term, John Hume’s situation is desperate. René de Klerk visited the rhino breeder to find out about his battle to support his herd…
• 98: Hume’s rhino originate from 98 locations, making them one of the most genetically diverse groups in the world.
• 4: The viable rhino populations on the African continent are found in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Kenya.
• 8 400: Buffalo Dream Ranch operates its captive breeding operation on an 8 400ha ranch.
• 180: The original size of the rhino herd brought from Hume’s Mpumalanga farm 11 years ago.
• 32: The number of rhino poached on Buffalo Dream Ranch before security was upgraded.
• 1 285: The number of rhino bred on the project, of which 1 056 are still alive.
It was a hot day and the sun beat down on Hume’s captive breeding facility near Klerksdorp. Many of the rhino were seeking shade to escape the midday heat. We spotted a number of wildlife species, including exotics like lechwe and llama. But we visited for the rhino, and they were not difficult to find.
Hume is the world’s largest breeder of southern white rhino. He trims their horn for safety reasons and has amassed a stockpile of six tonnes. His 8 400-hectare project is home to more than 1 730 rhino and he has been involved in rhino breeding for 27 years. However, he has faced an uphill battle and reports receiving little support despite protecting more rhino than some of the largest protected areas in South Africa.
Hume is seen as controversial, known for challenging the South African government’s moratorium on the domestic rhino horn trade and winning, as a result legalising local sales, and holding the world’s first rhino horn auction. Despite this, he is on the verge of no longer being able to feed his rhino.
To date, Hume says he has not sold substantial amounts of horn on the local market, simply because there is no demand. One of his largest sales failed. “We had all the permits in place, but those buying the horn contravened the permit conditions by driving in the wrong province.”
Hume says the authorities tend to liken anyone interested in buying horn to a criminal and the buyer then loses interest. “The government has killed all the demand.” Hume says four permits are required per transaction and even then, rhino horn cannot be sold legally outside South Africa’s borders.
Questions remain over why anyone would want to buy or own rhino horn in South Africa. Those with horn could keep it in the hope that international trade could become legal. Figures differ, but some sources indicate prices of up to $60 000 per kilogram on the black market – more expensive than gold or cocaine. A fully grown horn can weigh anything between one and three kilograms.
Shortage of funding
Hume made his money from real estate and is a self-proclaimed capitalist. He fell in love with rhino and decided to start breeding them. According to statistics provided by the Private Rhino Owners Association (PROA), he is one of just over 300 private rhino owners in South Africa. Although he is allowed to sell horn locally, the bulk of consumers are in Asia, and international trade has been banned since 1977. He points out that wild rhino in protected areas are dying for their horn, which is sold illegally. The Kruger National Park, the largest protected area in South Africa, is a poaching hotspot where up to five rhino per day are brutally slaughtered. Although not official, sources indicate there may be less than 200 black rhino and 1 800 white rhino remaining in the Kruger.
Hume says he has spent his life savings on this project, but has little funding left and lacks support in this respect. His expenses amount to a whopping R5 million per month, of which half is spent on security, and includes permits and the safe storage of his horn stockpile for possible future trading. “Nobody has joined me in this noble cause,” he says. “I have had a few small donations. At this stage I am just trying to avoid day zero.” Despite being asked, Hume did not confirm the deadline for ‘day zero’.
To stay afloat, Hume sold a large number of his buffalo and sold his entire black rhino population to eSwatini. He also received export permits for 10 rhino to two safari parks in Vietnam. This move secured additional funding, but whether the rhino will be safe in Vietnam (a known destination and consumer for poached rhino horn) and eSwatini, is questionable. The latter has a shoot to kill policy for poachers, which can be seen as a deterrent.
When day zero arrives, Hume will be unable to care for his rhino, which currently require supplementary feeding due to the ongoing drought, and he will be unable to pay his staff. “I will have no choice but to sell the entire project, despite low demand for rhino in South Africa,” he says.
“If I do not find a buyer and or a partner for the project, it will be an ecological and animal welfare disaster,” he says. “Day zero will be a catastrophe for the world as it will lose the best breeding and protected rhino population in the world.” Hume’s rhino herd grows by 200 calves every year. Their mortality rate is much lower than rhino in the wild.
Hume did not push for legal international trade from the start, but realised it might be the only way to support the project. “The idea grew slowly. I made the mistake of thinking it would pay for itself.” Hume argues that if he were able to sell his horn internationally, the project would not be in jeopardy.
Supporting the wrong cause?
Hume alleges that the poaching crisis has led to a new industry – NGOs making money from the poaching crisis by raising funds for rhino conservation. This funding, he alleges, does not always go where it is needed, with some taking large percentages to cover admin costs. Estimates place numbers at more than
1 000 organisations raising funds for rhino, but Hume receives no support and rhino continue to be poached.
Hume has become a controversial figure in conservation circles because he trims his rhinos’ horn and fights for international trade. His rhino continue to increase in numbers. He complains that organisations are unwilling to assist him in securing a future for his rhino. He wonders what will happen to his rhino if he is forced by circumstances to part with them and asks: “what will happen to them when a place like the Kruger cannot keep poachers at bay?”
He argues that money-collecting NGOs are fearful of losing their income stream, and speculates that they would rather keep the current situation in place. “This is why they all stand together against the trade of rhino horn,” he says.
Lack of support
One of the biggest challenges for private owners is the lack of government support to private rhino breeders. Security costs are huge due to the increase in poaching, but owners have to fight this battle alone.
Rhino poaching came to public attention in South Africa in 2006 and created a massive predicament. The animals were no longer safe. Security costs spiralled and the risk of keeping rhino far outweighed their value. Suddenly, rhino became more valuable dead than alive, as thousands of rhino died for a piece of horn, made from the same material as finger nails. Some Asian consumers believe that rhino horn can cure anything from hangovers to cancer, and some allegedly use it as a libido enhancer. It is also a status symbol among some of the rich.
Hume’s rhinos are probably the most protected in the world. “We have not had a poaching incident in 33 months,” he says. After losing a total of 32 rhino to poaching, Hume replaced all his private foot soldiers with camera and radar equipment, increasing his security expenses.
According to PROA founder Pelham Jones, there were over 400 private rhino owners in South Africa before the increase in rhino poaching. Today there are just over 300, caring for more than 50% of the South African white rhino population. “This is a huge conservation burden on our shoulders,” says Jones. Nobody wants to own rhino due to the massive expenses and risk. Jones says from 2009 to date, 28 tonnes of rhino horn have been stolen in South Africa. “The price of rhino has devalued by 67%,” he says.
Ban on international trade
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of species.
Rhino is on Appendix I, which means the species is threatened with extinction and international trade is not allowed, unless it is an exceptional case. Rhino horn cannot be traded.
In the PROA community there is a great deal of opposition to CITES. “The elephant in the room is CITES. Their draconian legislation and lack of support is a disgrace,” says Jones. He argues that the ban on trading rhino horn has not achieved much. “In 1977 when the ban was implemented, there were 33 rhino range states in Africa. Today, 23 of those have no rhino left,” says Jones. Of those with rhino, some now have less than 100 animals. “Despite this, they continue to force something that cannot work. Those who vote for it do not own any rhino,” he explains.
Jones says 90% of private rhino owners agree with the principal of trading horn. The rest are reserves with sponsors on board who choose not to support the notion.
Hume says the current regulations guard the illegal sale of rhino horn. “They are not stopping the illegal trade, but only the legal trade. All trade is in the hands of illegals with dead rhino,” he says.
Jones says the ban has already failed the rhino. “Legal sale of horn will save the life of wild rhino. If supply is regulated there is no reason to kill rhino,” says Jones. Hume says free market principles would then apply. “If there is too little horn for demand, the prices go up. It works with all the products in the world, so why can’t it work with rhino horn?” Hume argues. Every legal horn carries a unique identity number, so it can be tracked.
Too many grey areas
The trade of rhino horn is an emotional and complex issue. Many NGOs making a living from the crisis are against trade, while other organisations agree with legal trade in principal, but argue that there is a lot of work to be done before trade could become a reality.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), an international organisation working in the field of wilderness preservation and the reduction of human impact on the environment, is against the idea.
“The contention that legal trade would lead to a reduction in rhino poaching and illegal trade in rhino horn hinges upon assumptions,” says WWF SA media manager Andrea Weiss. “WWF does not believe that a well-managed legal trade is feasible without negative impacts for wild rhinos at this time given the unacceptable levels of rhino poaching, the scale of illicit activity and the extent of illegal domestic markets in Asia.”
The WWF says it “requires a greater understanding of the demand for rhino horn as a status symbol and for its perceived medicinal value to be confident that any future trade could have positive consequences for rhino conservation”. It also requires more information about the criminal networks used as illicit supply chains.
Hume believes this is tantamount to fiddling while Rome burns. “The slaughter of rhino in the Kruger and other parks and private reserves continues. If we carry on down this path there will be no rhinos left in Kruger in five years’ time. Why do we want to wait and let the slaughter continue, why not replace the poached illegal horn with a legal product that comes from live rhinos which continue to live and breed?”
Reducing the demand
Many argue that reducing the demand for rhino horn is the answer. Richard Thomas, global communications coordinator for TRAFFIC, a leading non-governmental organisation working on trade in wild animals and plants, says legal trade might stimulate an increase in demand.
“Rhino horn use can be curtailed. At various times in the past 60 years or so, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Yemen were all major horn consumers, but attitudes towards consumption have changed over time,” says Thomas.
The debate will continue to generate heat, and without testing legal trade it would be difficult to say what the impact would be. However, with rhino being killed at an alarming rate, increasing security costs, a depreciating asset and solutions slow to come to the fore, one can simply ask how long can debate continue with little action before rhino disappear from the planet completely.
Pitter patter of little feet
The Little Rhino Orphanage supports the rhino calves from Buffalo Dream Ranch that cannot be raised by their mothers. Some mothers are unable to provide milk, die or even abandon their young. This happens in the wild too, but it is not as closely monitored, with most of the abandoned calves being killed by predators, says Claudia Adrione, manager at the facility. At the time of our visit, the orphanage cared for a total of 50 rhino calves. Of those, 15 babies relied on milk, and 35 were weaned. The babies are all accompanied by rhino their own age, or a sheep when very young. As the calves age, they receive less and less human interaction and are moved further from human activity. Eventually, the youngsters are reunited with the wild rhino on the ranch.
If you are keen to find out more about Hume’s project and assist, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Written and photos by René de Klerk.
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