Our Burning Planet

WILDLIFE CONSERVATION

Shaky future for 2,000 rhinos after mega-breeder’s auction fails to attract bidders

Shaky future for 2,000 rhinos after mega-breeder’s auction fails to attract bidders
Orphaned rhinos at John Hume's breeding project, March 2023. (Photo: Ed Stoddard)

The fate of 2,000 white rhinos — about 8% of the world’s rhino population — hangs in the balance after mega-breeder John Hume was unable to attract any bidders for his conservation project. But there are offers outside the bidding process that are being considered, and an announcement is now expected on Friday.

John Hume still owns more rhinos than any other person on the planet after the six-day online auction for his Platinum Rhino project, which opened on Wednesday, 26 April, ended on Monday, 1 May at 5pm without attracting a single bid, according to the website.

“Auction ends: May 01, 2023 17:00,” the online site said as soon as the clock ran out. The minimum bid for the project was $10-million. But there are offline offers of intent on the table and negotiations are under way. 

“The auction officially closed at 17:00 (CAT) today, 1 May 2023, Save the Rhino Day. We have now entered a period of consideration of all the offers of intent and John Hume will be holding personal discussions with these parties with the support of his family. Due to the magnitude of the Platinum Rhino Conservation Project, this next phase could take a number of days to conclude. Our announcement will follow at the close of business on Friday, 5 May,” Platinum Rhino said.

“We are excited for the future of Platinum Rhino and look forward to welcoming the new custodian,” it added. That signals that there is a potential buyer, but nothing is set in stone.

Hume, now in his early 80s, no longer wants to have responsibility for 2,000 rhinos. His decades-long breeding project — which has its critics but is regarded by many scientists as a conservation success story — has cost him, he claims, about $150-million. He maintains he no longer has the funds for the project and is unable to sell his stash of rhino horn on international markets because of a global trade ban.

Hume has said that if he cannot find a “billionaire” buyer for the entire project — 2,000 white rhinos, the 8,500 hectares they roam in North West province near Klerksdorp, and all the security and other infrastructure that goes with such an undertaking — then he will be forced to sell the land and the animals “piecemeal”.

Arduous and uncertain process

If the offers of intent do not translate into a deal, it could be the end of the road for the project, and the road ahead is anything but clear.

Selling the rhinos off piecemeal will be an arduous and uncertain process. The poaching onslaught, for many private game farmers in South Africa, has transformed rhino ownership from an asset into a liability because of mounting security costs and the risk of losing an animal. This has driven many smaller owners out of the game and concentrated ownership into fewer hands.

It is not clear how much demand there will be for 2,000 white rhinos. A handful of other fairly significant owners might take a few, and perhaps some NGOs involved in “rewilding” the species by translocating South African rhinos to their former range elsewhere in Africa.

hume rhinos

A dehorned rhino bull at John Hume’s breeding project in North West. (Photo: Ed Stoddard)

Selling them to the state is probably not an option. SANParks does not have the funds and while it has had some success on the anti-poaching front of late, rhinos on state-run reserves in South Africa have not fared well. 

Among the mega-breeders and owners, Hume — who made a fortune in the hotel business — was the alpha. With 2,000 white rhinos, he may have as many as the Kruger National Park, where the population has been decimated by more than a decade of relentless poaching for the animal’s horn to meet red-hot demand in newly affluent Asian markets such as China and Vietnam. 

Hume has about 12.5% of the total white rhino population, which is now estimated to be just shy of 16,000, according to the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). There are about 6,000 African black rhinos left on the planet and in Asia around 4,000 greater one-horned rhinos. The Sumatra and Java rhinos only number a few dozen, making the global rhino population about 26,000 — of which Hume owns 8%.

Hume’s contribution to conservation is numbers and a population that is genetically diverse — crucial for the survival of a species that a century ago only numbered around 100 — and the same could be said for South Africa’s private rhino owners in general. While the populations in state parks have been hammered by poaching, the species’ numbers have grown on private land. The Private Rhino Owners Association estimates that the private sector now owns about 8,000 rhinos or 60% of the national herd.

Hume has not lost a rhino to poaching since 2017 and his animals are regularly dehorned as an anti-poaching measure. As a result, he has amassed about nine tonnes of horn which he cannot sell.

Hume has long been a vocal advocate of legal trade in horn, but his project — classified as a “captive breeding operation” — has grown rhino numbers, and it is hardly a zoo, or simply a farm for harvesting rhino horn. This correspondent has visited it several times over the years. The rhinos are divided into breeding areas averaging 500ha where they freely roam, graze and mate.

This approach is not without its critics, but it has demonstrably added to the species’ numbers while they have plummeted on state reserves, and the animals, while intensely monitored, are hardly domestic.

But now the fate of 2,000 rhinos, or 8% of the global population, hangs in the balance. Perhaps a deal will still be struck by Friday and the project will continue to add to white rhino numbers.

If not, what will happen if Hume can only sell 300 of the animals but still needs to sell the land where the other 1,700 graze? 

A mega animal welfare crisis may be brewing, and it will throw the spotlight on thorny issues such as trade in rhino horn and the role of captive breeding operations in conservation. 

At the end of the day, what the hell do you do with 2,000 potentially homeless rhinos? It seems that we’ll know by Friday if they have a new custodian or an uncertain future. DM/OBP/BM

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Absa OBP

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  • Gray Maguire says:

    I very much hope that the DM will be approaching Don Pinnock for his comment on this. These rhino’s were bred for legally harvesting & trading in horn. Clearly a private sector actor rearing 2000 head of rhino never happen again given the ruinous business case presented here, so I’d be very keen to hear Don’s sustained condemnation of live-harvested sustainable rhino horn trade as he has done in the past in light of this.

    • Paul Zille says:

      In a context where the global demand for horn is significantly larger than the available supply (including stockpiles), legalising the trade in farmed horn will simply incentivise the criminal syndicates that control the illegal trade to ramp up poaching. Long experience shows that legal trade channels are highly porous and can never be insulated from infiltration by these syndicates. Mr Hume’s achievements are immense, but this is one instance where legalising trade are likely to have unintended (but entirely predictable) consequences – the decimation of remaining wild rhino populations.

      • William Stucke says:

        Rubbish.

        Most (60%) of the remaining wild rhino population is in private hands. If those private persons can’t pay the enormous costs of protecting their rhino, they will cease to exist. Witness the 2,000 rhino under consideration here. Then what? The few left under SANParks’ care will indeed be poached. And the White Rhino will go extinct in South Africa, and soon, elsewhere.

        The ban of the sale of rhino horn has been an abject failure. However, John Hume’s conservation efforts have been 100% successful. Not one rhino, out of 2,000, poached in the last 6 years.

    • ian hurst says:

      Don will only have an emotive reply, with lots of pictures of sad-looking rhinos. The ban on the horn trade is slowly leading to rhino extinction. Legalizing the horn trade would immediately result in farmers increasing the number of rhinos bred.

  • betsy Kee says:

    Rhino horn should be sold under strict regulation. Banning the sale f horn does not deter the consumers making demands for more horn, and thus does not deter the poachers. The scarcity of horn on the market increases demand where possession of it confers status. Another example of ineffectiveness of banning sales of endangered animals is seen in the European eel. Formerly legally sold in vast quantities it is now illegally traded in vast quantities. The eels are still endangered and the trade has become unregulated.

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