/ 5 September 2023

Lifeline for John Hume’s 2 000 rhinos

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

African Parks has stepped in as the new owner of the world’s largest private captive rhino breeding operation, run by controversial rhino breeder John Hume, and plans to rewild the herd of 2 000 rhinos and their offspring over the next decade.

On Monday, the non-profit conservation NGO announced that it bought Platinum Rhino, a 7 800ha property in the North West. It holds 2 000 southern white rhino, representing up to 15% of the world’s remaining wild population. 

African Parks, which manages 22 national parks in partnership with 12 governments across Africa, said that as the new owner of Platinum Rhino, it is providing a conservation solution for the rhino. It will be converting the captive-breeding operation into a rhino sanctuary, phasing out the breeding and ensuring that all 2 000 rhino, and their offspring, will be rewilded to safe, secure areas across Africa over the next 10 years.

Hume, who made a fortune in the hotel industry, had invested more than $150 million of his own money to develop the project but ran out of funds to support and secure his rhinos. 

The financial stress saw Platinum Rhino put up for auction on 26 April with opening bids starting at $10 million. But it did not receive any bids, “putting these rhinos at serious risk of poaching and fragmentation”, according to African Parks.

African Parks told the Mail & Guardian that it had secured initial funding from key donors to purchase the farm, equipment and all 2 000 rhinos. 

“The donors have requested that this amount is not made public; however, it was significantly lower than the initial asking price.”

Potential conservation crisis

In a statement, it said that given its experience in effectively managing protected areas and carrying out wildlife translocations at scale, including bringing rhino back to Rwanda, Malawi and the DRC, it was approached by numerous concerned individuals from the conservation sector to “provide a solution to prevent a potential conservation crisis, and to help secure the future for a species in decline”.

After conducting a thorough due diligence and with the support of the government, as well as having secured emergency funding to make the transaction possible, it agreed to purchase the farm and all the rhino.

It has one clear objective: to rewild the rhinos over the next 10 years to well-managed and secure areas, establishing or supplementing strategic populations, “thereby de-risking the future of the species”.   

The breeding programme will be phased out and the project will end once all the rhino are released into the wild in one of the largest continent-wide rewilding endeavours to occur for any species.

“African Parks had no intention of being the owner of a captive rhino breeding operation with 2 000 rhino,” said Peter Fearnhead, chief executive of African Parks. “However, we fully recognise the moral imperative of finding a solution for these animals so that they can once again play their integral role in fully functioning ecosystems.”

The scale of this undertaking is “simply enormous and therefore daunting”, Fearnhead said. “However, it is equally one of the most exciting and globally strategic conservation opportunities. We will be working with multiple governments, funding partners and conservation organisations, who are committed to making this rewilding vision a reality.”

Significant lifeline

The white rhino as a species is under extreme pressure, particularly in South Africa, because of poaching for their horns for the illegal wildlife trade. Their numbers have fallen to below 13 000 today.

Mike Knight, chairperson of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s African Rhino Specialist Group, said in the statement that the conservation sector is delighted that African Parks “can provide a credible solution for this important population, and a significant lifeline for this near-threatened species. 

He added that: “This acquisition provides the unique opportunity to rewild these 2 000 white rhinos for the benefit of people and rhino conservation in Africa.”

Knight told the M&G: “We would like to get these animals back into Africa, and obviously find homes for these animals in South Africa, too. The key thing is that wherever they go, it must be the right habitat that is big enough, secure, well-monitored and that will obviously contribute to the national goals and the overall goals for Africa to increase the numbers of white rhinos.”

It must be ensured, Knight said, that the rhinos are seen as valuable to the people that live with and around them “so they can gain value from the species” as well. 

“This could be from tourism, existence value, some form of sustainable use, if supported in those countries. It’s about trying to maximise the value of those rhinos so they’re not necessarily locked  away in a park or something,” he said.

Pelham Jones, the chairperson of the Private Rhino Owners Association, said it is “absolutely delighted” by the acquisition of African Parks into Platinum Rhino.

“This has been brewing for a long time and we’ve been looking at trying to find successful supporters of this operation on an international level and obviously a domestic level.”

Rhino populations have been on a steady decline. 

“Until recently, we’re seeing at the end of 2022, a very slight increase in population numbers across the continent but this captive breeding operation of Hume’s can be used to repopulate key reserves, not only within South Africa, but in Africa.”

African Parks is a highly credible conservation organisation with a successful history in conservation across Africa, Jones said. 

“Platinum Rhino is quite a complex operation but the wonderful thing is that rhino are incredibly compatible and easy when it comes to rewilding. 

“They are not a complex species and we believe that the ideals and objectives of African Parks are very much in line with ours and we congratulate them and we also congratulate John Hume for his incredible conservation success,” said Jones, referring to Hume as an unrecognised hero for his work on the survival of the rhino.

Conservation solution

If African Parks had not “come to the party” and in a worst-case scenario, Hume had to place the operation into insolvency, the animal welfare issues of 2 000 rhinos would have been enormous, Jones said. 

“What do you do with 2 000 rhinos? You can’t just send them off to a butcher … The consequences were too horrendous to consider and it took a very very bold move by African Parks to do what they are doing because obviously, it’s not only the immediate short-term operational expenses that they’re dealing with. There’s the acquisition cost, as well as long term to turn these rhinos back into the conservation community.”

Forestry, Fisheries and Environment Minister Barbara Creecy congratulated both African Parks and Hume for reaching the important agreement, she said it facilitates a conservation solution for the rhino in a captive facility.