WILDLIFE

‘I want my horns back’ says SA rhino baron after trade deal goes pear-shaped

By Tony Carnie 14 June 2020

A freshly-dehorned rhino at John Hume’s ranch. The horns are removed under veterinary sedation. According to wildlife vets, the operation is entirely painless, provided the operation is done by skilled professionals. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

The world’s largest rhino breeder has vowed to go to court this week to recover a massive haul of rhino horns confiscated by police after a murky trading deal turned sour in a tiny dorpie called Skeerpoort.

The 181 horns originated from the ranch of John Hume, a former property developer who has ploughed his life savings into breeding rhinos commercially to harvest and sell their horns – despite a global ban on horn trading that was imposed over 40 years ago in a bid to prevent the world’s second-largest land mammal from being poached to extinction.

Hume claims that everything was above board on his side, but the police appear to have thought there was clearly more to the deal than met the eye when they seized the stash of horns and arrested Clive John Melville and Petrus Steyn on 13 April 2019 in the isolated hamlet of Skeerpoort, about 20km from Haartebeesport Dam in North West province.

Rhino rancher John Hume is hoping to recover nearly 200 horns which were seized by police last year during a horn transaction that went sour in the town of Skeerpoort. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

Earlier this month, Melville and Steyn were fined R50,000 and R25,000 respectively after pleading guilty to charges of engaging in restricted wildlife activities without permits – to wit, possession of 181 white rhino horns of undisclosed monetary value.

Melville, 58, and believed to be related to Hume through marriage, also pleaded guilty to a further charge of forging a document to falsely authorise the transport of the rhino horns.

According to a plea and sentence agreement signed on 5 June 2020 at the Brits Regional Magistrates’ Court, Melville has been self-employed for the last 30 years and earns about R20,000 a month from buying and selling second-hand cars, and car parts.

His accomplice, Steyn, 61, is a divorced former teacher from Modderfontein who earns around R4,000 a month, working as a general labourer at a mechanical plant hire company.

The two men, who both pleaded guilty, were represented by Port Elizabeth attorney Alwyn Griebenow, who has previously represented several suspects accused of rhino poaching or rhino horn trading – including rancher Marnus Steyl and the so-called “Ndlovu gang”. 

An employee at John Hume’s rhino ranch holds up two freshly removed rhino horns before they are moved to safe custody. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

Some of Griebenow’s other high-profile clients have included perlemoen poaching kingpin Morne Blignaut; murder accused Christopher Panayiotou and a group of alleged SA mercenaries arrested in Zimbabwe for plotting a coup against the government of Equatorial Guinea.

In their statement admitting guilt, Melville and Steyn acknowledge that the offences they committed related mainly to rhino horn permit transgressions – as the horns were not poached illegally and had been harvested legally from living rhinos at Hume’s ranch.

Wildlife staff at John Hume’s rhino ranch use an automatic saw to remove horns from a white rhino following veterinary sedation. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

Nevertheless, their admission of guilt statement acknowledges that “this type of offence is very prevalent” in South Africa and that the plight of the rhino was well known.

“While it is true that the horns in question were harvested legally and not through the cruel and devastating means of illegal poaching, the circumstances nevertheless show that criminals will go to great lengths to satisfy the bizarre demand for rhino horn due to the black market value thereof.”

To understand some of the complexities of the matter, it is worth recording that buying and selling rhino horns is currently legal in South Africa (subject to certain strict conditions), although selling horns commercially to buyers in another country has been prohibited since 1977 in terms of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

To complicate matters further, the legality of domestic trade in rhino horns in South Africa has undergone several changes over the past few years.

For many decades, government conservation agencies and private owners were permitted to sell horns domestically under certain conditions, but this changed in 2009, when domestic trade was banned under a government moratorium which aimed to halt rampant black-market smuggling.

Enter John Hume, a former property resort developer who currently farms more than 1,800 rhino at his ranch in North West province, and who has been lobbying to overturn the CITES ban so he can sell horns legally harvested from live rhinos to buyers in China and other Eastern nations.

(These are horns which are cut off a rhino’s head using a mechanical saw while the animal is under veterinary sedation. According to wildlife vets, the operation is entirely painless, provided it is done by a skilled professional.)

Three years ago, after a series of court battles, Hume finally managed to overturn the moratorium on the domestic sale of rhino horn.

Though this earned him the legal right to resume selling rhino horns domestically to recover some of the costs of his massive rhino ranching operation – he was still prohibited from exporting horns commercially under the CITES ban.

So, he could sell horns within South Africa (where there is no commercial consumer demand as rhino horn has never been used on a large scale for traditional medicine or other purposes) – but he was still prohibited from selling horns directly to illegal traders in China, Vietnam or Laos.

Finally, on 12 April 2019, second-hand car dealer Melville and plant hire labourer Steyn showed up at a secure banking vault where part of Hume’s stash of several tons of rhino horn are kept in custody.

However, to test the waters and push the new legal boundaries, Hume staged a widely-publicised online, international rhino horn auction in June 2017 (with prices and buyer information translated into Mandarin and Vietnamese).

He offered 500kg of his legally harvested horns to all-comers (including foreign buyers and proxy buyers), effectively suggesting to these buyers that they could acquire his products legally. But it was, ahem, their indaba if they chose to stockpile these horns in SA until a time when the CITES ban was lifted – or well, you know, make some other kind of plan.

Returning now to the recent “Skeerpoort affair”, Hume applied to the Minister of Environmental Affairs on 7 September 2018 to sell 181 of his horns to “a certain Allan Rossouw”.

According to the court papers, the minister’s representatives later issued permit number 0-29886 to Hume (allowing him to sell the horns) and permit number 0-29888 in the name of Rossouw (allowing him to buy the horns).

A month later, the Gauteng provincial department of environmental affairs also issued rhino horn possession permit number 0-101310 in the name of Rossouw. In March 2019, a further permit application was made to transport the horns from a secure banking vault in Gauteng to another secure vault elsewhere in the province, also in the name of Rossouw.

All these permit applications were submitted by Hume’s office.

Finally, on 12 April 2019, second-hand car dealer Melville and plant hire labourer Steyn showed up at a secure banking vault where part of Hume’s stash of several tons of rhino horn are kept in custody.

According to the court papers, Melville and Steyn were acting on the instructions of Melville’s brother, Charles Melville “and/or Mr Hume”.

Hume and Charles Melville had apparently requested John Melville and Steyn to shift the horns to a place where they could be “inspected by potential buyers before negotiations regarding price could be determined by such buyers and Charles Melville and/or Mr Hume”.

The court papers do not make it clear where Allan Rossouw lives, but state that the two potential buyers who wanted to look at the horns were from Bloemfontein, and that their names and contact details were provided by Charles Melville.

To cut a long story short, John Melville and Petrus Steyn collected the horns from the vault and then drove them to an undisclosed accommodation establishment in Skeerpoort, where both men were arrested on 13 April by the police because one of the permits had been forged by John Melville and because the horns had been moved from Gauteng province to North West province, apparently without authority.

According to the Department of Environmental Affairs, the arrests were made during an operation that included members of the Hawks Serious Organised Crime and Endangered Species, Tracker SA and Vision Tactical, “following the receipt of information that a vehicle from a coastal province was carrying a considerable amount of horns. The rhino horns were allegedly destined for the South East Asian markets.

On Hume’s version, the authorities declined to witness the handover and opted instead to mount a sting operation which resulted in the arrest of Melville and Steyn.

These horns were seized by police and remain in their custody, but now Hume wants them back.

Hume, speaking through a spokesperson, had a slightly different version of events when interviewed at the weekend.

He maintained that Melville and Steyn were acting on Rossouw’s behalf when they collected the horns (not on Hume’s behalf) and that the police operation had been a “sting”.

His spokesperson said Hume’s office had notified the authorities in advance that he was about to sell some rhino horns under permit – and that he also invited them to witness the handover to the new legal buyer at the bank vault.

On Hume’s version, the authorities declined to witness the handover and opted instead to mount a sting operation which resulted in the arrest of Melville and Steyn.

And now, says Hume, he wants the horns back.

But hang on, Daily Maverick asked his office, surely the horns were no longer his, because he had already handed over the horns to Rossouw’s agents?

No, says Hume. Rossouw never paid for them – so they remain Hume’s property.

But hang on again, Daily Maverick asked, how could Hume have agreed to hand over 181 horns potentially worth many millions of rands into the custody of two men apparently acting on behalf of Allan Rossouw (if Rossouw had not paid for the horns in advance or provided adequate financial guarantees).

And, hang on once more – didn’t Hume’s office state that he had never met Rossouw in person and had only communicated with him via email.

In response, Hume’s office claims he was so desperate to conclude a legal sale that he was willing to run the risk of losing them by handing them over to the custody of a man he had never met.

Hume’s office suggested that Rossouw may have been an “agent” acting for a third party.

“Agents don’t always want you to speak directly to their clients,” his spokesperson suggested, adding that such buyers might potentially buy a product for a certain price and then sell it on at a higher price.

In any event, Hume’s office said they have now contacted the State Advocate and obtained an assurance that the horns would not be destroyed before Hume lodged an application in the High Court to recover the horns.

Good luck to the court in untangling what really went down at Skeerpoort, or the true identity and nationality of the potential end buyer.

The Hawks, the National Prosecuting Authority and Department of Environmental Affairs were all invited on Friday, 12 June 2020 to comment on Hume’s efforts to recover the horns. No response has yet been received. DM

Gallery

Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or if you are already an Insider.

KUSILE OVERSPEND

Gordhan names firms linked to R4bn Eskom overpayment, while NPA investigates former employees

By Marianne Thamm