John Hume’s rhino horn auction

Image of a white rhino family captured in sunset in Southern Africa

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.

Further information

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 latest position on international and domestic rhino horn trade can be found here.

8 thoughts on “John Hume’s rhino horn auction

  1. China did a cheap game with India. They tried to sell Artificial Rice, Cabbage n Many through Plastic.
    I don’t say Rhino Horns b made by same looking material, but looking to the advancement of Technology, if Scientists can make Muscles tissues, they must be advised to take care of Ivory n Rhino horns through new Inventions.

    Science for Welfare Preservation n Protection of Animals involving Technological Advancement must be The new Invention Branch

  2. And so Mr Hume uses the thin veil of the high costs of his efforts to supposedly ‘protect’ a species to justify the feeding of an illegal and immoral trade in order to profit himself. It is no surprise that most of “”his”” Rhinos are White as their disposition allows him to keep more in any given area of land and therefore maximise his horn harvest. He is not interested in protecting Rhinos; he is interested in protecting their horns.

    This would mean the beginning of the end as great, wild species become like domesticated cattle, herded and farmed to generate profits for the landowner. Mixed scrubland becomes turned in to stripped grassland; all the easier to monitor, breed and capture White Rhino to harvest the horn. The natural landscape changes to accommodate the growing trend and the mixed wilderness along with multiple other species that depend on it (including the rarer Black Rhino) suffer as a result.

    Trade in Rhino horn is simply wrong. It cannot and should not be justified. The current efforts to change attitudes and stop demand in other parts of the world is the only way forward and must be continued. The auctioning and development of a horn market dilutes that important message and undercuts it in every way. It is time that Governments and people of countries and continents look to their natural heritage to protect it for the good of future generations and not just turn it in to farm produce to benefit rich individuals like Mr Hume.

  3. Cathy, thanks for your response to my question.

    I did not intend to delve into the other issues that you raise, but rather focus on the question of whether horn leakage threatens wild rhinos. However, I do think they are relevant and this discussion is useful, and so here is my response to each of your points.

    First, yes, South African law enforcement agencies will be challenged, but they are already severely challenged under current circumstances and this may be an opportunity to test whether traceability measures such as DNA profiling and micro-chipping work effectively for supply chain monitoring and management at a domestic level.

    Second, I don’t think the pro-trade lobby speaks with one voice. Some are certainly keen to ensure there is no leakage; others might believe that leakage is not such a bad thing, as it might deflect some of the demand for freshly poached horn. Also, I doubt that they all deny responsibility, but many probably feel that the government ought to take the lead on enforcement (as does the government itself). Dawie Groenewald can hardly be regarded as a credible leading spokesperson for the pro-trade lobby.

    Regarding your third point, I think pro-traders might have mixed views on the relevance of CITES. I suspect that some have simply written CITES off, skeptical that it 1) is an effective and credible mechanism for conserving certain types of high value endangered species, and 2) that the parties will ever agree to international legal trade. This is unfortunate for those who wish to follow all the right procedures and play by the CITES rules, but there are clearly others who have no faith in, or patience with, extensive international regulatory bureaucracy.

    But these three points above detract from the issue on which my original question was focused. To be clear, I did not intend to imply that leakage would reduce the poaching of wild rhinos (although others certainly believe that it would). I was simply questioning whether the reverse is necessarily true – i.e. that leakage further threatens wild rhinos. This is a general proposition I encounter frequently regarding endangered species, e.g. ivory stockpile leakages threaten wild elephants, tiger farms threaten wild tigers, commercial captive lion breeding threatens wild lions and tigers, etc. These arguments, implying that any form of supply somehow further stimulates demand, are currently very popular, but there doesn’t appear to be much solid empirical evidence to support them. Hence my interest in understanding the motivations for this world view.

    I regret that I do not quite understand your final point either. There has been much speculation about the market power of criminal syndicates – again, with limited empirical evidence to support or refute it. This is also an interesting issue, but I am not quite sure how it relates to my question about supply allegedly stimulating demand.

  4. Mike, thanks for your question.

    Your comment doesn’t mention the immediate challenge facing South African law enforcement agencies of dealing with the likely increased movement of legal rhino horn within the country and distinguishing that from illegal horn. (Who’ll pay for the associated cost of the additional police / permitting resources required?)

    Secondly, we’re surprised that the pro-trade lobby is not bending over backwards to ensure that any form of domestic trade does not allow leakage into the illegal market; instead there seems to be tacit acceptance that this will happen, together with a denial of responsibility.

    (For example, see Bryan Christie’s article in NatGeo, which includes the following quote from Dawie Groenewald on the likely buyers of rhino horn: “”“Who cares what they do with it? If they want to take it illegally out of the country, it’s their problem.”

    Presumably, for the pro-traders, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is the hope that, one day, CITES will approve a South African proposal to legalise the international trade in rhino horn: cut out the middle men and sell direct for bigger bucks. Doesn’t the likelihood of CITES ever approving such a move recede with every seizure of illegal horn made via a poorly managed and policed domestic trade? Why aren’t the pro-traders working more proactively to prevent every possible risk of leakage via domestic trade in order to support their longer-term goal of international trade?

    And lastly, we don’t understand your implied point that leakage will reduce the poaching of wild rhinos. Given the mark-ups applied at different points along the illegal supply chain, the criminal syndicates must have some flex with their pricing and be in a position to undercut the prices charged via domestic sales. Unless the private rhino owners are planning to cap the maximum price per kg of horn they sell, in order to closely match current poaching-payment levels and re-calibrate the risk / reward equation of poaching vs auction purchases?

  5. Thank you for that detailed and interesting account of your views. This is certainly a challenging topic. However, there is one aspect of your posting that puzzles me and it relates to your final point that domestic legal trade within South Africa will most likely enable further leakage of horn into the Asian black market. My question to you is this: if our ultimate objective is to reduce the poaching of wild rhinos, then why would this matter? Rhino horn trade is illegal within China and Vietnam and will most likely remain so. Imports to those countries will also remain illegal unless either country issues CITES import permits for purposes of personal use, which they are most unlikely to do (and certainly not on any meaningful scale). So I can’t see how law enforcement in Asian countries would be compromised in any way. Therefore, the only ‘problem’ I could see here is that additional sustainably harvested horn reaches Asian end users via illegal channels. But how and why would this specifically be a bad thing for wild rhinos? I’m curious to know your thinking on this. Please note that I am not trying to be provocative or start a heated debate, nor arguing in favour of what is currently happening in South Africa, but merely trying to understand your view on this one very specific point. Thank you!

  6. I can’t believe anybody with even a moderate IQ can actually believe that these proposed regulations will help stop the rhino poaching business. It will be like putting coals on the embers of the fire, as it was when the ‘one off’ ivory sales were made in 1999, 2002, and 2008. Oh yeah there were three of them. Look where they got us.

    My plan for selling a rhino horn to the black market will go like this: I buy one legally at auction ‘to display on my mantlepiece at home’. I give it a few months and then report it stolen. Once the police have taken statements etc, I have a late night visitor at my back door and it’s ‘thank you Mr Chan, pleasure doing business with you’.

    Regulations will only deter law abiding citizens. Others do not care whether it’s registered, DNA tested or painted in candy stripes. There is a market out there.

    But the mighty $$$ always wins against conservation. I wonder how much of Mr Hume’s money will go towards rhino conservation in other countries, all of which will suffer the ill effects of this auction. Perhaps the government should take 50% conservation tax, if it must go ahead. A sad day for rhinos.

  7. I am appalled to read about this auction. It should not happen it will only encourage the slaughter of more rhino. It will never be contained just within South Africa and there does not appear to be correct legislation to stop this horn going into the Asian market.

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