Business Maverick

ANALYSIS

Conserving and rewilding John Hume’s rhinos may cost R1bn or more

Conserving and rewilding John Hume’s rhinos may cost R1bn or more
Rhinos at John Hume’s farm in North West. (Photo: Gallo Images / Rapport / Conrad Bornman)

The purchase of pachyderm patriarch John Hume’s 2,000 white rhinos and his breeding project by African Parks for an undisclosed sum was likely just the tip of the expenditure iceberg. Maintaining the project and gradually translocating the animals over the next decade could conceivably cost up to or even more than R1bn.

When it comes to the economics of megafauna, megabucks are also involved.

Non-government organisation African Parks last week announced that it had bought wildlife tycoon John Hume’s 2,000 white rhinos – the world’s largest privately owned population of the pachyderms – and the 8,500-hectare property they roam on for an undisclosed sum. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Herd of 2,000 African rhinos get a last-minute purchase and rewilding ‘lifeline’

By stepping up the plate, the NGO threw a lifeline to about 8% of the world’s rhino population (including all species) after an online auction with a minimum bidding price of $10-million failed to attract a single bid. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Shaky future for 2,000 rhinos after mega-breeder’s auction fails to attract bidders

At a media briefing on Tuesday at African Parks’ offices in the Joburg suburb of Bryanston, CEO Peter Fearnhead said the donors who had come forward to make the transaction possible had requested anonymity and that the amount paid to Hume not be disclosed. 

It’s probably safe to say that the purchase price was at least R100-million as the transaction required regulatory approval from, of all things, the Competition Commission.

R100-million is the “minimum asset value of the transferred/target firm” that requires such approval. But one reckons that Hume wouldn’t have settled for anything less than the $10-million minimum bid he had sought. In other words, R190-million.

The purchase price is almost certainly the tip of the expenditure iceberg and the NGO will need donors to keep opening their wallets. 

Hume’s daughter-in-law, Tammy, said earlier this year that maintaining the breeding project came at a cost of R54-million a year. This includes a state-of-the-art security system that has thwarted poachers, with the last poaching incident recorded on the ranch in 2017. 

Running costs of R54-million a year come to R540-million over a decade – and that’s not counting inflation. Estimating how much costs will rise over the next decade is really a thumbsuck, but you can bet a bakkie-load of rhino horn that costs are going to go north. A conservative guess will be that the operational costs will run between R650-million and R700-million over the next 10 years. 

Hume, who claims he has spent over the decades about $150-million (close to R3-billion) on the project, including the purchase of rhinos, was running out of the funds needed to keep things running.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Four African nations line up to ‘rewild’ massive herd of ‘homeless’ South African rhinos

Rewilding costs

Then there are the rewilding costs, which will also be jumbo. 

For starters, it’s not 2,000 rhinos that are expected to be translocated, but 3,000. This is, after all, a breeding project and the herd will keep reproducing. So the aim is to “rewild” – which effectively means reintroducing species to former ranges and habitats: 300 rhinos a year for 10 years. 

Fearnhead provided journalists with a breakdown of costs – a lot depends on the distances involved. In South Africa, to dart, capture and move a rhino costs $1,500 a pop, or about R28,500 at the current exchange rate. 

To move an animal overland in the region – to, say, Botswana – raises the costs to around $5,250, about R100,000.

The costs really soar if the relocation destination is, say, the DRC or Chad. When aircraft are involved, the costs are around $50,000 per animal, about R950,000. That’s a lot of first-class seats in one go.

So, hypothetically, if 1,250 of the animals were relocated to domestic reserves, 1,250 to neighbouring states, and 500 were airlifted north of the equator, the costs, according to this correspondent’s calculations, would be over $33-million – about R630-million. 

That amount, of course, is also subject to inflation and will depend on how the animals are distributed, but sprinkling 1,250 around South Africa – the least costly option – is a doubtful option at present in the face of the poaching crisis. 

There is virtually no state-run park in South Africa that is currently suitable for rhino relocations. About 8,000 rhinos, or 60% of the national herd, are in private hands – including Hume’s which now belong to African Parks – and a key factor behind this trend has been the mounting losses to poaching in state-run parks, notably the Kruger. 

The private sector in SA last year had only 20% of the rhinos poached for their horns, while state reserves – which hold only 40% of the animals – accounted for 80% of the toll.

KwaZulu-Natal’s state parks have become the focus of the carnage as its provincial wildlife agency falls apart under the combined weight of mismanagement and corruption.

While private rhino owners have done a far better job of protecting their assets, soaring security costs have driven smaller players out of the game, leading to a concentration of ownership.

Hume’s herd was the biggest example on that front, but it will now gradually be whittled down, and there are not many big owners with the capacity to protect a growing rhino population.

Fearnhead told Daily Maverick in an interview that African Parks had received expressions of interest from both private and state reserves in South Africa for animals from Hume’s herd. But demand from the private sector is unlikely to reach the hypothetical 1,250 outlined above.

Security will, of course, also be a concern north of the Limpopo for any translocated populations.

The bottom line is that this is at least a R1-billion baby plus plenty of change, and, like a rhino calf, it can grow a lot bigger. DM

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