Our Burning Planet


John Hume’s Platinum Rhino project has no viable business model – that bodes ill for big critter conservation

John Hume’s Platinum Rhino project has no viable business model – that bodes ill for big critter conservation
Rhinos at John Hume’s farm in North West. (Photo: Gallo Images / Rapport / Conrad Bornman)

It’s been more than a week since an attempt by mega-game farmer John Hume to auction his Platinum Rhino breeding project of 2,000 white rhinos ended without attracting a single bid. Talks regarding offers made outside the online bidding process are said to be ongoing. But the project has no viable business model, and that is not good news for rhino conservation.

The apparent failure of John Hume to find a buyer for his 2,000 rhinos – the largest privately owned herd by far, and one that accounts for more than 12% of the world’s white rhino population – is potentially a crippling blow to the cause of big critter conservation. 

The reason why the project has been unable to attract buyers or investors is probably simple: it does not have a viable business model in the current wildlife policy and economic environment. In fairness to Hume, he has not tried to sell it as a profitable business, but rather as a project that needs a wealthy philanthropist willing to burn a lot of cash for the cause of conservation. That would be someone like himself – but with deeper pockets.

The factors behind its poor investment case speak to the wider rhino industry, and the long-term implications for conservation are chilling.

As we have reported extensively over the past few years, private rhino ownership in South Africa has in many ways been a conservation success story, and Hume has been the leader of this pack.


A 2020 study in the peer-reviewed journal Conservation Letters found that 28% of South Africa’s private rhino owners were disinvesting in the species. (Photo: Gallo Images / Rapport / Conrad Bornman)

About 8,000 rhinos are now in private hands in South Africa – perhaps 60% or more of the national herd, according to the Private Rhino Owners Association (Proa).

Four years ago, a Proa survey put the ratio at about 46% of a national herd that then numbered over 15,000.

Read more: Rhino conservation: the horns of a dilemma

Read more in Daily Maverick: Saving private rhino: Non-government owners of the animals succeed in stemming poaching carnage 

In 2010, according to estimates at the time by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), South Africa had almost 19,000 rhinos and 4,000 – less than 25% – roamed private lands.

What has happened over the past 13 years is that state-run reserves, notably the Kruger National Park, have been overrun by a relentless wave of poaching to meet soaring Asian demand for rhino horn. This is emblematic of the wider failure of the South African state on many fronts.

But private owners, with the incentive and the means to protect a big, four-legged asset, have done a far better job of protecting their rhinos. The numbers simply speak for themselves.

Incentives evaporating

Private game farmers for years acquired or invested in rhinos for a range of reasons. Game viewing and trophy hunting were among these, but breeding could also deliver a return if a herd produced calves for resale to other owners. This was not just the case for rhinos, but also for other game species such as Cape buffalo and sable antelope.

But that bubble – and a potential source of a return on investment – has long since burst. Game prices in general came under pressure during the drought linked to the last El Niño, which saw feed costs soar, while the subsequent lockdowns to contain the pandemic scorched the sector’s profits further. 

For rhino owners, these trends coincided with escalating security costs to protect their pachyderms from poaching. One consequence has been a growing concentration of rhino ownership in fewer hands.

A 2020 study in the peer-reviewed journal Conservation Letters found that 28% of South Africa’s private rhino owners were disinvesting in the species. Pointedly, it also found that the price fetched by live white rhinos at auction had fallen 75% between 2010 and 2020.

Read more in Daily Maverick: White rhino monopoly capitalism? 28% of SA’s private rhino owners are ‘getting out’ of the species

And now Hume, the biggest owner of all – with 25% of privately held rhino – is trying to disinvest, but can’t seem to find investors.

As a business model, Hume’s project is on par with Eskom’s – it simply sucks.

Selling rhinos is increasingly unviable. Fewer game farm businesses want the animals because of the rising security costs and the risks of losing animals to poachers, trends that are in turn depressing prices.

Some rhino owners, including Hume, have also built up stockpiles of horn over the years. Dehorning is an anti-poaching measure, but the horn that has been accumulated cannot be sold because a global ban on trade in the commodity has been in place since 1977.

As Jane Wiltshire of the African Wildlife Economy Institute at Stellenbosch University recently noted in this publication, an overwhelming body of evidence shows that the ban has not worked.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The global ban on the trade in rhino horn does not, and will not, work

This brings us back to the Platinum Rhino project. A legal trade in horn would probably make it viable as a business, as would thriving demand for live rhinos by other private owners, state reserves that were properly managed and liquid, or NGOs involved in “rewilding” efforts in other range states. 

But the policy, security and economic climate have all combined into a perfect storm that has swept aside almost all incentives for private rhino ownership in South Africa.

Domestic policy is unclear, with a recently adopted White Paper on biodiversity still to go through a long and winding implementation process with stakeholder consultation. 

Meanwhile, commercial farmers remain concerned about the long-term risk of land expropriation in the wake of decades of government failure to address glaring disparities in ownership.

This state of affairs may explain why a billionaire with cash to throw around has not stepped up to the plate. Such a philanthropist, with no worries about the costs, would presumably want to maintain and grow the herd in the interests of conservation and to support rewilding initiatives elsewhere. But even that “return” on investment is not guaranteed at the moment.


These clouds do not just hang over Hume’s project – a “captive breeding operation” that does not cater to game viewing or trophy hunting tourists. They shroud the entire sector in the mists of uncertainty.

If it is the end of the line for Hume’s project at a time when smaller private rhino owners are also feeling the strain, it clearly bodes ill for the conservation of the species and wildlife more broadly.

A recent assessment of the conservation contribution of Hume’s project by the IUCN’s African Rhino Specialist Group was hardly a ringing endorsement, saying “that rhino conservation is not simply just about the total number of rhinos”.

But among the issues raised are ones that speak directly or indirectly to costs – and hence the business model.

“The natural capital of southern white rhino within the Platinum Rhino herd likely has significant conservation value for potential rewilding options. Options for rewilding, however, can only be fully assessed if consideration is paid to trade-offs against purchase costs of rhinos sourced from Platinum Rhino, the costs and constraints in rewilding semi-intensively bred rhinos, and the opportunity costs pertaining to other rhino conservation opportunities that may involve similar annual expenditure,” it says.

The assessment also pointedly notes that the project has “built up significant biological assets in the form of about 2,000 southern white rhinos”. Indeed, the private sector as a whole has built up “significant biological assets” and now has more rhinos than South Africa’s mismanaged and graft-ridden state reserves.

Yet the business or investment case for rhino ownership is fast fading, and that could lead to a reversal of this trend.

Conservation may not just be about numbers, but numbers do also literally count. And any future hopes of reintroducing the species to former range states and territories – with policies and measures in place to protect them from poaching or habitat loss – will rely on adequate numbers.

It may be time for a rethink of policies, including the failed global ban on the commercial trade of rhino horn.

Without a business model that can provide a return on investment, or a clear policy environment to attract wealthy donors uninterested in making a profit, the fate of more than Hume’s herd is hanging in the balance on the horns of this dilemma. DM/BM

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ritchie Morris says:

    A few questions & comments:
    Is the breeding of rhinos in feedlots shown in the Conrad Bornman photo used in the article really ethical in terms of wildlife? I bet most would reply No!
    These are ‘wild’ animals. Should they not be living & breed in the wild?
    One reads very few articles on management of the demand side. The article has one sentence, ‘a relentless wave of poaching to meet soaring Asian demand for rhino horn.’ It is acknowledged that this aspect is not the thrust of this article.
    Much more needs to be done by governments to convince those Asian governments and their people about the “Convenient Lie” about the values (medicinal and wealth) that rhino horn offers. Its the same with pangolin scales, perlemoen, lion bones, donkey skins, etc. A ‘convenient lie’ most likely perpetuated by the suppliers to retain demand and value.
    Are large breeding farms like Hume’s really about rewilding, or are they more about rhino horn farming? Said another way, ‘if the price of horn collapsed due to reduced demand or oversupply, would such farms be necessary or viable’?
    A final comment, rhinos are very capable of successfully breeding in the (proper) wild where they are well looked after. More article coverage and international effort is needed to manage the demand side through awareness of the irrational perceptions about the benefits of rhino horn. Why do African countries pander and pussy-foot about the behaviour of the Asian rapists of Africa’s natural wealth?

    • Lyn Scheibe Scheibe says:

      Agreed. John Hume is a rhino
      farmer and businessman- not a conservationist.

    • Alan Jeffrey says:

      Hi Ritchie

      Some realities-I cannot see that education will make a dent in the demand side. For whatever reasons, these beliefs from the people of these ancient civilisations seems immovable and ingrained. Second-captive breeding might be an only hope solution for re-introduction at a later stage if things improve. Also I would send as many as possible to Australia where there exists huge areas of open space and intact First World institutions.

  • Alan Jeffrey says:

    For someone like Bill gates the cost of funding such a vital project would be a pittance, but he would rather spend money on combatting malaria and other diseases that are Africa’s natural Game Guardians. If these diseases are eliminated then Africa’s big game is doomed as are her peoples whose numbers will spin out of control. Far better to fund a comprehensive birth control programme to improve lives and save the environment.
    The world and many of its so called “Top People” has/have gone literally mad. Nature might be able to effect a cure but it will be the most brutal event in modern history

    • Yvonne Riester says:

      Absolutely! Heading towards 10 billion humans but only a few thousand rhino left. Humans are a plague. So far neither HIV nor Covid has had an impact to reduce their numbers.

  • Deon Botha-Richards says:

    Where are all the rich environmentalists from the global north who always see fit to dictate their views on conservation to the rest of the world? Those who oppose hunting and trade saying conservation can survive without that?

    Surely they have the solution to this conundrum?

    No no… silence…

  • Alastair Stalker says:

    I’m concerned that DM seems to be taking a pro trade stance. I’m not going to reiterate all the reasons why this would be even more disastrous for rhinos but suffice to say that there are 1.4 Bill potential customers in China and another 95 Mill in Vietnam. Demand reduction or destruction is the only way to save rhinos. I’m also concerned that DM is taking the stance that there has to be a business justification to conserve animals. It would be great if they could be preserved for their ecological value. DM also seems to be feeling sorry for Hume. He and Pelham Jones have done more to muddy the waters and perpetuate the confusion over rhino horn trade than anyone else. As to Hume’s business model, why don’t you ask Julian Rademeyer about Hume’s relationship with Dawie Groenewald?

  • Jack Rollens says:

    The true problem to Africa’s Wildlife/Environmental problems is government corruption. South Africa is so corrupt from Ramaphosa to the guards SAN Parks. The unemployment, inequality is to blame. Poaching is easy when you have so many people starving and unable to live. The primarily white ownership of land is another reason. Private game reserves are for wealthy people. To either go on “Safari” or to kill the beautiful wildlife and stick their heads on the walls of their mansions when they get home.
    Conservation is a national priority. When not if South Africa loses it Wildlife it will fall into total chaos. It is on the verge right now.

    John Hume and the PROA is in the Rhino business for one thing “Profit”. Rhino horn at $5700 an ounce. Is quite the incentive. The Asian market now because of their newly found wealth is huge and willing yo pay whatever the price.
    Until governments from the East, China and Vietnam especially and African countries, South Africa and Kenya. But truly all. Must make the changes. NGOs and individuals like myself that have been fighting this fight for more than fifty years help, but cannot win without help.

  • Alan Jeffrey says:

    The best solution would be to find a sponsor to ship as many as possible to Australia where the first world government has massive areas of suitable habitat and a fully functioning security apparatus

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