Against an undefined legislative backdrop, and given the inadequate demonstration of due diligence, we believe that John Hume’s auctions have the potential to become a ‘Trojan horse’ in rhino conservation, effectively flouting CITES regulations concerning the international trade in rhino horn.
In July 2017, John Hume, South Africa’s largest private rhino breeder, announced his intention to hold an online auction in August, of some of his amassed rhino horn stockpile, as well as a live offline auction in September, both in partnership with Van’s auctioneers.
As the date of the auction approached – planned for 21-23 August – it was revealed that the Department for Environmental Affairs had not yet granted a permit to Hume to hold the auction, with Hume counter-claiming that the permit had been signed but not released. At the “11th hour”, Hume launched a court challenge that went in his favour, and the DEA issued him with the necessary permit to hold the auction.
Given the delay in receiving the permit, Hume put back the auction by 48 hours; it eventually began on 23 August and finished on 25 August. At the time of writing (29 August 2017), no details have been published as to the number of bidders, number or names of successful bidders, and number or value of lots sold. A brief statement by Hume’s lawyer said simply that ““The auction yielded fewer bidders and fewer sales than anticipated” and blamed DEA’s delay in issuing the permit that allowed Hume to sell rhino horn domestically.
This was the first such auction to have taken place. Hume’s website said that he also intended to hold a live, offline auction on 19 September, and it is conceivable that other private rhino owners might decide to hold their own rhino horn auctions.
The following discussion focuses on Hume’s auctions, but would apply to any other auctions prior to the enactment of new legislation regulating the domestic trade in rhino horn within South Africa.
Who would buy and why?
The first online rhino horn auction in South Africa was held from 23-25 August. No details have yet been released.
Hume’s auction appeared to be aimed at a global market, in that there are buttons for Mandarin and Vietnamese versions of the main English-language site. According to the auction website, Hume is sitting on more than six tons of horn, some of which would be made available to buy via these auctions.
Although the details of auction lots were only available to those who had parted with R100,000 (c. US $7,600), reports circulated in the press about the amount of horn for sale and how pricing would be determined. According to the Sunday Times, a South African publication:
Van’s Auctioneers spokesman Johan van Eyk said Hume would offer just over 500 kg of rhino horns for sale. The horns would be split into 250 separate lots, mainly sets of front and back horns and some larger individual front horns. A second, conventional auction would be held amid tight security in Gauteng on September 19. Van Eyk said he was not willing to speculate on expected prices, but noted that current domestic black-market prices were considerably lower than end-of-market prices in the Far East.
There was no information on any limitations to be placed upon bidders – e.g. in the number, weight or cost of horns that each may purchase. The auction website made it clear that prospective buyers were required to hold a permit, obtained from the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), in order to buy horn. Only buyers who were South African nationals or those with residency status in South Africa would be issued with permits. There was no information on whether and how Hume and Van’s would be able prevent cartels from engaging in price fixing.
Save the Rhino’s view on Hume’s proposed auctions
According to Van’s website, it is “accredited and fully compliant with the legal obligations as stipulated by the SA Institute for Auctioneers, the Estate Agency Affairs Board and the Consumer Protection Act.” We are surprised that Van’s auctioneers would choose to take part in auctions that have the clear potential to facilitate laundering rhino horn in the guise of permitted sales.
We are opposed to the holding of auctions of rhino horn prior to the enactment of new legislation regarding the domestic sale of rhino horn within South Africa.
Furthermore, rhino horn sellers should: be transparent about the successful bidders and prices paid and how the income from the auction would be used; consider the sale’s potential impact upon wild rhino populations throughout Africa and Asia and their threatened ecosystems; and go above and beyond adhering to the basic letter of the law to ensure that no rhino horn from these sales leaks into the illegal international trade.
Who is John Hume?
John Hume has the largest number of privately owned rhinos in the world, with more than 1,500 animals living on his private ranch in South Africa. Most are white rhinos; a species currently listed as ‘Near Threatened’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Why does Hume want to auction horn?
According to the auction website, he spends more than $170,000 on security every month caring for and protecting rhinos on his ranch, including security measures such as planned dehorning operations, carried out under a nationally controlled permit system.
Hume has been a long-standing supporter of an international and domestic legal trade in South Africa, and has significant support from other private rhino owners. He has often publicly stated that he believes a legal trade is the only way to stop the poaching crisis and argues that the escalating security costs for rhino owners, and wild rhinos, are unsustainable. He further states that a renewable source horn could one day meet demand from Asia, that a permit system and RhoDIS DNA database will prevent leakage of legal horns into the black market, that better law enforcement is unlikely to end the trade alone – especially when throughout history there are examples of prohibition not working – and that the failure of a regulated ivory market is not comparable to the situation with rhino horn, as ivory cannot be harvested without killing elephants.
Moreover, Hume refutes the notion that his and other breeders’ primary aim is to make money from a legal trade, arguing that the costs of rhino protection are currently shouldered by private owners and that funds generated from his horn sale will go back into conservation. Hume has previously made a public offer to train local communities in poor, rural areas to breed rhinos.
South Africa’s complicated position on domestic horn trade
Whereas the international trade in certain wildlife products is regulated by CITES, CITES’ signatories are able to determine whether or not they allow internal, domestic trade according to the laws of the country. Until 2009, South Africa had allowed a domestic trade in rhino horn, even though the international trade had been banned in 1977.
But, following the dramatic increase in rhino poaching in South Africa from 2007, in 2009 the Department of Environmental Affairs placed a moratorium on domestic sales of horn, in part due to concerns about sales of horns from private sector then entering the black international market. Not everyone was pleased, and John Hume and Johan Kruger brought a test case against the moratorium.
On 26 November 2015, a judge lifted the moratorium on the domestic trade in rhino horn in South Africa, after finding that the state had not followed due process regarding public consultation before imposing the moratorium. The ruling was delivered in the Pretoria High Court after two South African game breeders had fought a legal battle to try to overturn the moratorium. John Hume and Johan Kruger, who had launched the legal action, argued that it was their constitutional right to sell rhino horn, which they describe as a renewable resource. Shortly after the ruling was made public, the South African Minister of Environmental Affairs announced that the government would appeal the court’s decision. This meant that the judgement was suspended and the ban would remain in place until the appeal was heard.
On 20 January 2016, the South African High Court dismissed the government’s application to appeal the earlier ruling lifting the moratorium on the domestic sale of rhino horns. The Environmental Affairs Minister, Edna Molewa, appealed the ruling at the Supreme Court of Appeal, and then the Constitutional Court. As a result, the ban was temporarily, upheld.
However, on 5 April 2017, the Constitutional Court formally dismissed the appeal by the Department of Environmental Affairs to keep the domestic ban in place, effectively legalising South Africa’s domestic trade in rhino horn.
Prior to that, and in recognition that there would need to be a Plan B if Plan A (upholding the moratorium failed), on 8 February 2017, the Republic of South Africa had published Draft Regulations for the Domestic Trade in Rhinoceros Horn, or a Party, Product or Derivative of Rhinoceros Horn, with a window for comments ending 9 March 2017. At a press briefing on 24 July, the Department of Environmental Affairs’ (DEA) Honourable Minister Molewa confirmed that the draft regulations were still being reviewed by the DEA:
The draft regulations contained a number of specific provisions relating to the export of rhino horn for non-commercial purposes, such as personal use, hunting trophies, research or education as training as provided for the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
She further underscored that in order to be in possession of a rhino horn a permit is needed, in keeping with the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act 2004 (NEMBA) as well as applicable provincial conservation legislation. Minister Molewa further drew attention to the fact that the requirements for the legal export of rhino horn will include inter alia:
- The horn must have been subjected to DNA profiling
- The horn must be marked by means of a microchip and a ZA-serial number (as prescribed in the TOPS Regulations
- The information of the owner of the rhino horn, and information relating to the marking of the rhino horn, must have been recorded in the national database
- A CITES export permit, which also needs to make provision for the export as a Threatened or Protected Species (TOPS) specimen, that has to be endorsed at the port of exit prior to exportation
Minister Molewa further emphasised that to facilitate the national coordination of permits for the domestic trade in rhino horn:
I personally will be the issuing authority for permit applications relating to the selling and buying of rhino horn within the border of this country. However, this arrangement is dependent on the written agreement of the MEC’s responsible for the conservation of biodiversity in the nine provinces… This cannot be emphasized enough – the commercial international trade in rhino horn remains strictly prohibited in terms of CITES. That is correct, Ladies and Gentlemen, prohibited. South Africa is a signatory to CITES. The draft regulations published for public comment relate to a proposed domestic trade. We sincerely hope that in our reporting you will do a service to your readership and listenership and emphasize this distinction so that we do not sow confusion.
Save the Rhino’s position on potential international trade in rhino horn
All international trade in live rhinos and rhino horn is regulated by CITES. At present, no international trade in rhino horn is allowed apart from certain provisions around the export and import of trophy horns.
In principle, Save the Rhino supports sustainable use. This means that we are not ethically opposed to the use or sale of animals in a sustainable way – as long as this does not negatively impact on the population as a whole or cause pain or suffering to the animal.
We are not, therefore, ethically opposed to the horn trade, as horns can be removed without harming rhinos (though this is not to say that dehorning is simple). Our concerns, however, are based on whether the horn trade could be put into practice without threatening rhino populations in Africa and Asia. As such, Save the Rhino has not yet reached a conclusion on whether an international trade is workable or not long-term. We are considering the factors influencing this and the circumstances that would need to be in place to ensure that international trade would be beneficial to rhino conservation.
However, we currently do not believe, based on the evidence available, that the required checks and balances are in place now, or are likely to be in the near future, for a legal horn trade to be regulated successfully and without leakage into a black market – potentially fuelling further demand.
Save the Rhino’s position on domestic trade in rhino horn
Given the number of interceptions of illegal rhino horn that have been smuggled out from South Africa (which can only be a fraction of the total figure), the question of whether South Africa could effectively regulate a domestic trade that does not impact on efforts to curb the illegal international trade is very much a moot point. It is recognised that enforcement agencies are already over-stretched without having to try to manage parallel legal and illegal trades.
Anyone caught in possession of rhino horn could, for example, claim it had been legally purchased via auction and that they had simply misplaced their permit. It is unlikely that South Africa’s legal system, with its existing case backlog, would have many options except releasing the suspect on bail to await presentation of the correct paperwork and DNA testing, rather than being held in custody for suspected rhino poaching. A related and critical question is whether RhODIS has capacity and is sufficiently funded to respond to the increased needs generated if domestic sales become routine now that the moratorium on domestic trade has been lifted. It could be the case that costs are pushed further onto already-stretched enforcement agencies.
According to draft legislation published by the DEA, a loophole will allow a foreign national with relevant paperwork to export two rhino horns across South Africa’s borders as long as the rhino horn is intended for “personal use”. Allowing export of horn for personal use implicitly lends credibility to the idea that rhino horn has a medicinal or status value, which is not supported by sound science and undermines demand reduction work in Asia. Vietnamese and Chinese law enforcement agencies’ jobs will be made significantly more difficult if they must distinguish between horn exported from South Africa under the guidelines in the draft domestic trade regulations, and horn being illegally transported to consumer countries.
In summary, Save the Rhino cannot see how a domestic trade within South Africa could be managed without enabling further leakage into the Asian black market for rhino horn.
Updated 29 August 2017