/ 11 May 2023

Fate of John Hume’s 2 000 rhinos unclear

John Hume Farm
De-horned rhinos roam on the field at John Hume's Rhino Ranch in Klerksdorp, in the North Western Province of South Africa, on February 3, 2016. Picture: MUJAHID SAFODIEN / AFP

The future of a herd of about 2 000 rhinos roaming the world’s largest privately-owned rhino ranch in North West, founded by rhino breeder John Hume, is uncertain.

Last month, Hume’s captive breeding operation, Platinum Rhino, which breeds and conserves southern white rhinos to prevent their extinction, went on auction. With opening bids starting at $10 million, the auction was billed as a “unique opportunity to own the most significant population of southern white rhino in the world” for a “new conservation custodian” for the project.

His ideal buyer was a “person or foundation with a passion for conserving rhinos and the means to keep the breeding project going”, according to Platinum Rhino. 

But the five-day online auction failed to attract a single bid, Business Maverick reported. The latest interim update from Platinum Rhino said only that it “continues to engage and negotiate with the parties who have made offers to purchase Platinum Rhino”. The auction, it said, “fulfilled our aim to crystallise the world’s focus on the cost of conservation”.

‘Rhino hero’

The 81-year-old, who made a fortune in the hotel industry, invested more than $150 million of his own money to develop the project but had now run out of funds to support and secure his rhinos. 

“I’ve used all my life savings spending on that population of rhinos for 30 years. And I finally ran out of money,” he told The Guardian before the auction. “I’m hoping that there is a billionaire that would rather save the population of rhinos from extinction than own a superyacht.”

In a video posted before the auction, conservationist Ivan Carter praised Hume’s lifelong commitment to saving rhinos, describing him as a “rhino hero”.

Hume’s property is home to more rhinos than exist in most wildlife landscapes on the entire continent, Carter said. “They’ve been wiped out and this one man has put more of them on the planet than exist in most ecosystems … As we stand today, the largest population of rhinos in private hands is on John Hume’s ranch — almost 2 000 individuals of a species that has become extinct in over 90% of its former home range.”

Phasing out intensive breeding

Conservation specialist Karen Trendler said the High Level Panel, appointed by forestry, fisheries and environment minister Barbara Creecy, that reviewed policies, legislation and practices related to the management, breeding, hunting, trade and handling of elephant, lion, leopard and rhinos, had recommended the phasing out of intensive rhino farming.

“If that is enacted, and if the minister [Creecy] is going to follow through on that, and she certainly seems to be following through on the lion bone industry, then that would directly affect operations like John Hume’s operation. I know that those recommendations are being challenged, there is an outcry about them, but they were approved by the national assembly and by cabinet, and that plays into it.”

Hume, who successfully sued the government to reverse the moratorium on the domestic sale of rhino horns, is an ardent proponent of the legalisation of the international sale in rhino horn, to stop poaching and fund conservation. 

But, according to Trendler, the ban on the trade, in place since 1977, is unlikely to be lifted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites). 

“It’s a huge number of rhino [on Hume’s farm] and one would hate to think of anything happening to them, and them not being around to contribute to conservation, but my feeling is that it was a business deal and he thought there would be an opening of international trade and that’s highly unlikely to happen,” she said. 

“In spite of there being a domestic trade [in South Africa], given the world’s trends and what has happened at the last few Cites meetings, it’s highly unlikely to open up rhino horn trade internationally. So, it might cost him a huge amount of money to care for them, and protect them, but on the other hand, surely when you accumulate that huge number of rhinos and you see what the trends are, globally and locally, you adjust according to that.”

Significant assets

A recent assessment by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s African Rhino Specialist Group of the conservation contribution of Hume’s project, described how it had built up “significant biological assets” in the form of about 2 000 southern white rhinos. 

“While this is a major conservation achievement, insights and considerations of southern white rhinos and of their contributions to various values for ecosystems and people suggest that rhino conservation is not simply just about the total number of rhinos,” it said. 

“Thriving African rhinos play key ecological roles within ecosystems, within which their evolution depends on their genetic heath, not just on population numbers; they are valued by people as iconic species and contribute to human well-being.”

The group recognised the “innovative rhino breeding practices” demonstrated by the project, which resulted in a significant addition to the global white rhino population. 

It noted that excluding ex-situ [the conservation of biodiversity outside its natural habitats] collections, there were 15 940 southern white rhinos in the global population, as reported at the end of 2021. 

“The assessment of the conservation contribution of Platinum Rhino must therefore take into account a relatively low urgency for captive breeding approaches; want of a clear conservation needs analysis at the start of the initiative; very low benefits for other species and limited benefits for broader ecosystems.” 

Rewilding Hume’s rhinos

Platinum Rhino, however, was assessed as making useful contributions to education, awareness and research, while increasing southern white rhino numbers and “taking some steps to maintain genetic diversity”.

The assessment also noted that Hume’s project was initiated without an objective conservation needs assessment, discussion, guidance or integration into broader scientific perspectives and expertise. It said that Platinum Rhino “bears responsibility for the outcome, which is clearly positive in terms of rhino numbers, but raises questions about the future of those rhinos”.

The natural capital of southern white rhino within the Platinum Rhino herd probably 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.”