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Guarding the last of the great beasts

What to do with 2 000 rhinos that nobody wants? This is the conundrum property tycoon John Hume recently found himself in.

It’s a cautionary tale. Thirty years ago, property tycoon John Hume bet the bank on farming rhino. By 2023, he owned almost 2000 – between 8 and 15% of the world’s total population – and some 10 tonnes of horn.

Rhino horns can be harvested every two to three years – like shearing sheep, the pro-trade argument goes. With the average 2022 wholesale price of raw African rhino horn in South Africa on the black market at $7,529/R142000/kg (Wildlife Justice Commission report), harvesting a potential three kilograms spread over three years could rake in an estimated R47 333/year per animal.

Pro-trade arguments set forth by the Private Rhino Owners Association appear pretty cogent. Flood the market and drop the price. Create a commercial value for live rhino (citing the explosion in crocodile numbers when the decision was made in the 1960s to farm them). Contribute taxes to SARS and funnel these back into conservation. If the ban – imposed in 1977, when there were 29 rhino range states – actually worked, why are there now only five left with viable rhino populations?

Conservationists counter this with equally strong points: South Africa’s rhino population grew exponentially after the ban, peaking at around 20 000 in 2012; even with huge poaching losses the number currently stands at an estimated 15 900. Legal trade will reverse the progress made in demand reduction. The subsequent increase in demand could outstrip legal supply. Farmed horn will likely be seen as inferior (plausible, given that consumers will pay eight times more for rarer Asian-sourced horn). And the ease with which the black market can “launder” poached horns will incentivise more poaching, as was the case in elephant poaching after a one-time legal sale of ivory in 2008. This “bleeding” of stock incidentally happens both ways – at least 18% of illegal rhino horn seizures over the past decade are from legal stockpiles; including 181 from Hume’s.

Regardless, it is the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) that determines what member nations can do, and with CITES having zero interest in legalising trade, Hume finally ran out of cash. On 26 April 2023 he put his entire operation on auction. And received not a single bid.

“When African Parks was approached to help find a conservation solution for these rhino, we felt we had a moral imperative to step in, given our unique position,” says Jean Labuschagne, Director of Conservation Development at African Parks. Founded in 2000, African Parks co-manages 22 conservation areas with governments and local communities. Labuschagne, who has signed on seven of these, explains that over 20 million-ha across 12 countries now fall under their ambit, the largest portfolio of protected areas managed by any one NGO on the continent.

“African Parks is not about saving any specific species. It is about good land management and stewardship, successfully and holistically conserving multiple large landscapes that benefit all species in that system. Part of this is conducting translocations and reintroductions, and with 20 years’ experience, we are – along with the support and input of key stakeholders – well-placed to carry out this ambitious rewilding project.”

According to Donovan Jooste, AP’s Rhino Rewilding Project Manager, all the rhinos will be rewilded within 10 years. “We are currently working with experts to create a stringent criteria framework to identify the most suitable protected areas, and hope to complete the first translocation by June 2024.”

Hume may have lost his punt, but the final outcome of his project has been a win for conservation. By not only growing the population but ensuring their genetic diversity, and successfully protected them from poachers, the man most condemned for his commercially-minded interests may one day be hailed as an accidental conservation hero.

 by Pippa de Bruyn


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