The world’s largest private rhino breeder, John Hume, is on the verge of bankruptcy, leaving questions open as to what happens to his 1,626 Southern white rhinos, held on his property, Buffalo Dream Ranch, in North West Province, South Africa.
In this Thorny Issue, we discuss why this has happened and what could be done to secure a future for Hume’s rhinos.
Who is John Hume?
John Hume has the largest number of privately owned rhinos in the world, almost all of them being Southern white rhinos, currently listed as ‘Near Threatened’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. These are monitored and protected at the 8,000 hectare Buffalo Dream Ranch (BDR), near the North West province town of Klerksdorp, which is defined as a Captive Breeding Operation (CBO) under Threatened Or Protected Species (TOPS) and Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) regulations.
Hume is probably best known for challenging the South African Government’s moratorium on the domestic trade in rhino horn, an extended legal case that he eventually won in 2017. He also appeared in the 2017 documentary, Trophy, in which he shared his views on legalising the trade in rhino horn.
Hume has regularly stated that he believes a legal trade is the only way to stop the poaching crisis, arguing that the escalating security costs for rhino owners and managers of wild rhino populations alike are unsustainable. He further states that a renewably sourced rhino horn could one day meet demand from Asia, that better law enforcement is unlikely to end the trade alone 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.
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. In January 2018, Hume announced that he was partnering with a local NGO to implement a Southern Africa Community Rhino Breeding Programme, aimed at increasing the rhino population and in the process, create opportunities for rural communities to benefit from rhinos and then stop collaborating with poachers.
Why does John Hume keep rhinos?
Both white and black rhinos are bred at BDR, though the majority are white rhinos, the less endangered of the two species. As a CBO, the rhinos are managed more intensively than they would be in the wild, with supplementary food, regular veterinary care, a gender skew towards females, and a proactively managed stud book. The population is estimated to grow by around 10% annually, with a prediction that Hume will successfully breed 200 calves in 2018. Hume’s rhinos make up approx. 8% of the global Southern white rhino population.
Every rhino at Hume’s ranch is dehorned. This cyclical routine takes place when a rhino’s horn has grown back sufficiently since it was last removed, approximately every two to three years. Each time, the rhino is anaesthetised for this operation. Hume’s stated main reason for dehorning is to deter poachers; it has also enabled him to build a stockpile of more than six tons.
Hume has repeatedly said that being able to sell off his stockpile would allow him to pay for the costs of keeping rhinos, noting: “If I don’t get money to protect my rhino they will be dead…what I am doing here is simply not sustainable. I am using my life-savings and it can’t last.”
It has been reported that Hume spends R5 million (US $400,000) every month in security costs alone to look after his rhinos. Unfortunately, this has not completely stopped poachers, with around 40 rhinos having been killed since 2014. The huge cost of keeping his rhinos safe from poachers, as well as paying for feed, veterinary care and staff, has seemingly made it impossible to continue under the current financial model.
Hume’s business plan
Hume’s rhino breeding venture began in 2008, when it was still possible to legally sell rhino horn in South Africa. The poaching crisis was beginning to take off in Zimbabwe, but at nothing like the level it is at now (1,028 rhinos were poached in South Africa in 2017). Since the launch of BDR, the population has increased to c. 1,600 Southern white rhinos. Hume’s population has increased partly through breeding, but also because Hume has bought additional rhinos, e.g. in 2013 he bought 90 rhinos from SANParks. Clearly, as recently as 2013, he believed that the financial footing of BDR was sound.
Hume has always insisted his project is centred around saving rhinos and not about making a large profit, instead the income generated from selling rhino horns would provide the funds to continue to expand his population and conserve rhinos. Hume believes his business model will be the only way to stop the rhino from extinction.
For his business model to work, a legal trade in rhino horn is needed, whether domestically or internationally, with the latter presumably being Hume’s preference, given that consumer demand for horn predominantly comes from Viet Nam and China. The latter would mean a change in CITES regulations, the international trade in rhino horn having been banned in 1977.
The history of rhino horn sales in South Africa
Until 2009, when the South African Government put a ban in place, people were still able to trade rhino horn internally within South Africa. The moratorium in South Africa was in part due to concerns about the potential leaking of rhino horn into the black market; a report on the 2009 moratorium highlighted a shortfall of c. 1,800 kg on the quantity expected to be held in stockpiles, according to estimates based on natural mortalities etc., and what was recorded in official inventories. When the ban came into place, rhino owners who had previously been able to sell their horns, were, predictably, unhappy.
A series of legal challenges to the moratorium followed, led by John Hume and Johan Kruger (another rhino owner), escalating through the country’s courts. Finally, in April 2017, South Africa’s Constitutional Court reversed the ban, ruling that there had been inadequate consultation on the proposed moratorium on the domestic trade in rhino horn.
In August 2017, after a number of delays, Hume held an online auction to sell an advertised 264 rhino horns. Widely publicized, the website had translations into Mandarin and Vietnamese. Although the details of the auction – the number of lots sold and prices fetched – have never been made public, Hume stated he was “disappointed” with the sale, blaming the South African Government and adverse publicity for the lack of interest from buyers. Hume’s lawyer, Izak Du Toit, wrote in a statement: “The auction yielded fewer sales and fewer bidders than anticipated, but the legal domestic trade has now been established and the road has been paved for future sales”.
Since the overturning of the moratorium, anyone with a permit to sell rhino horn within South Africa has been legally able to do so, provided the buyer has an equivalent permit. There have been complaints about the slow issuing of permits by South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs. Hume may have been able to sell horn privately, away from the media glare, but he has not held any further public auctions, having cancelled one originally scheduled for September 2017.
International trade in rhino horn
At present, the international trade is not permitted under CITES regulations. At the 2016 Conference of the Parties (CoP) held in Johannesburg, Swaziland had tabled a proposal – drafted at the 11th hour when it became clear that South Africa was not going to submit its own proposal – to allow international trade in its rhino horn, but the proposal did not reach the two-thirds majority required.
It is not yet known whether Swaziland or South Africa, or any other rhino range state, will submit a rhino horn trade proposal for consideration at the next CITES CoP in May 2019.
Does John Hume have the support of other rhino owners?
Hume is not only the biggest owner of rhinos, but he has also been at the forefront of challenging the legal systems to overturn the ban on the sale of rhino horn. Some other private rhino owners in South Africa support Hume, as they all face similar challenges at varying scales.
In 2016, there were more than 300 private rhino owners in South Africa alone. Collectively, these private reserves are home to about 35% of South Africa’s rhinos (approximately 6,300 rhinos). Many of these owners are members of the Private Rhino Owners Association (PROA), which aims to legalise the trade in rhino horn, and which has established a Central Selling Organisation (CSO) called Rhino Horn Trade Africa (RHTA). A press report in June 2018 said that while 32 would-be sellers had signed up to join RHTA, only two of those had received the necessary permits from the Department for Environmental Affairs (DEA) to be able to sell rhino horn legally within South Africa. On the other hand, interest from buyers has so far been muted; indeed the only enquiries have come from overseas would-be buyers, who are not eligible to buy rhino horn under CITES regulations.
What is happening now?
Ongoing security, veterinary and general upkeep costs have meant that Hume’s monthly bill is at least R5 million (US $400,000). Now, Hume warns that he will fall into bankruptcy in August unless new funds are found.
Hume has often stated that his expenditure is not currently sustainable without an income, yet the immediacy of his financial situation has not been shared until now. A statement on the August 2017 auction site states: “If he does not get the funds he needs to keep his rhino protected, ten years from now, he’ll have no more rhino on his Captive Breeding Operation.”
The lack of funding now presents a difficult situation for Hume’s 1,600 rhinos, whose lives depend on ensuring tough security measures are in place. But finding a solution to this issue is not simple.
What can be done?
The most important part of the current situation is the rhinos’ safety. These rhinos continue to be threatened by poaching and would likely be killed by poachers if there were no funds left to provide security at BDR.
There are many options for John Hume to consider to secure a future for his rhinos. The first, and perhaps most obvious, solution is that someone else buys BDR, and with it the rhinos. A press release and email circulated by Hume on 19 June 2018, says that he wants “to find a wealthy partner to purchase up to 50% of the project, and then for this partner to help me secure cooperation from our government to sell rhino and rhino horn in order to ensure sustainable funding to keep the project alive.”
However, finding a suitable buyer / investor, who has a genuine passion for rhino conservation – and the ability to continue this level of expenditure without an income from the trade in horns – would likely be difficult. Hume’s chances of finding investors or buyers may increase if South Africa decides to table a proposal to allow the international trade in rhino horn at the next CITES CoP in May 2019. Parties have to submit proposals a minimum of six months in advance, i.e. by November 2018, so Hume may only need to find emergency funds to last until then. A major concern is that investors from China or Viet Nam may want to buy into Buffalo Dream Ranch.
Other options may provide ways for John Hume to generate alternative income streams from BDR, whether through trophy hunting, diversifying the animals he breeds or creating a tourism area. However, none of these are likely to result in the levels of income needed quickly enough. The prices paid for trophy hunts of white rhinos has dropped; breeding programmes for other species would take time to establish, and – as Hume himself admits – BDR is “flat, ugly and very dry”, to prevent poachers hiding out; not be a place that could easily be converted into a travellers’ paradise.
Relocating or loaning rhinos from Hume’s farm to other private owners, national parks or international zoos would be a huge task, requiring long-term planning and negotiation. Even if logistically and financially possible, parks and zoos may already be at their capacity for Southern white rhinos, and private owners in South Africa are examining their own increased security costs as a result of having rhinos on site. Regardless of their personal support for Hume’s court battles to reopen the domestic trade in rhino horn, PROA members may not be able or willing or able to take over BDR or a proportion of Hume’s rhinos.
Finding a single approach that will prevent the collapse of security measures at BDR and thus ensure the rhinos stay safe, is unfortunately, unlikely.
What can Save the Rhino do?
As a small charity, with existing commitments, a focus on the three Critically Endangered species of rhino, and with clear grant-making guidelines that exclude CBOs and privately owned rhinos on private land, Save the Rhino International is unable to provide financial support in this situation. Our priority programmes, those focusing on Key 1 (100+ animals) and Key 2 (50+ animals) wild populations of black, Sumatran and Javan rhinos, are carefully chosen to ensure the grants we award are spent in the best and most effective way possible.
Our key concern is for John Hume’s rhinos. Their safety must be the priority.
In an ideal world, there would be no demand for illegal rhino horn and little threat to rhino populations, meaning that the costs for security of any rhinos would be minimal. Unfortunately, this is not the world we live in.
We have considered options available to Mr Hume and, unless a new buyer for BDR and its rhinos in entirety can be found, believe it will be necessary to pursue a combination of strategies to safeguard the 1,626 Southern white rhinos.
John Hume is clearly a passionate individual who cares for his rhinos. However, his business model has always been premised on a legalised trade in rhino horn, without – seemingly – a contingency plan for what might happen to these rhinos if the trade ban continued. The lack of a back-up plan has, unfortunately, brought us to today’s situation.
While we cannot fund a rescue plan, we sincerely hope that the outcome, which may be a combination of options, is truly in the rhinos’ best interests and for genuine rhino conservation reasons.
 John Hume owns Southern white rhinos, which have a total global population of between 19,666 and 21,085 (figures correct as at 31 December 2015), and are listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). They are a distinct subspecies from the now functionally extinct Northern white rhino, the last male of which, Sudan, died in March 2018.