The campaign to legalise trade in rhino horn as a potential solution to the poaching epidemic has gained a lot of traction in recent months, most recently with a paper written by leading environmental scientists in the journal Science calling for the move, and indications that regulations to allow the trade may be tabled at the next CITES meeting in 2016.
One of the staunchest advocates of legalisation is John Hume, a wealthy South African businessman who is South Africa’s largest private rhino owner and breeder. He has around 800 rhino, mainly white, some at his game ranch in the lowveld, where they live in semi-natural conditions, but receive supplementary feeding, the majority reared on two farms in the highveld, in large enclosures with typically 80 animals in a space of 400-500 hectares. His rhinos are dehorned every 18 months, and the horns are immediately transferred off the farms to safekeeping in bank vaults, ready for the day when they may be legally traded.
John Hume believes that to reduce both poaching and the abuse of the trophy hunting permit system, trade should be legalised, and controlled by a central selling organisation, which would broker sales to consumer countries. A DNA database would be used to verify provenance of horn. We visited his farms and interviewed him twice last year – here are his views:
What is your main argument for legally trading horn harvested from ‘farmed’ rhino?
My biggest argument for pro-legalisation is that every single legal killer of rhinos [ed's note: rhino owners allowing their animals to be shot under permit as trophy animals] in this country would change his mind overnight, he would never again kill a rhino. 98 per cent of the rhinos legally killed in this country are not by genuine trophy hunters. Especially, white rhino – you don’t hunt a white rhino. It’s like killing a pig. It’s like shooting your cow. 98 per cent of the rhinos being killed legally in this country are being killed for the horn consumption. Very, very few are killed for trophies.
There are dozens who kill rhinos legally, probably more than a hundred, and some of them kill a lot. They are tightening the rules, but still a lot of rhinos are killed here. The reason every one of those killers would give you is that ‘we have no option’.
If you wanted to buy a rhino horn from me, for whatever reason – eat it, stick it on your wall – you would be unable to buy that rhino horn. If I wanted to sell you one of the hundreds of rhino horns that I’ve got, we’d both go to jail. But to get around that is very easy – just kill the rhino. And that is to me the most stupid situation, the legal killing of rhinos. Not one of those guys would kill his rhino if he could cut off the horn, give it to you, and keep the rhino alive. You would immediately stop all the legal slaughter of rhinos in this country, probably several hundred rhinos a year.
Poaching is rather different. The poaching, even if we had legalisation, would continue, but in my opinion not at the same level. We farmers would have something to say to these kingpins, the buyers: ‘You don’t have to kill my rhino to get the horn, I’m growing it for you anyway. If you don’t kill a rhino, a male in its lifetime will probably grow 50 or 60 kilos [of horn]. A female, maybe 30 or 40 kilos. Not only am I growing it for you, but I’m growing ten times what one [dead] animal will produce.
I think you would have a chance of getting through to a lot of them. New Zealand produces 160 tonne of deer velvet per year – they never get a deer poached. The Far Eastern market knows its going to get the velvet anyway, so why go to New Zealand and poach it?
If you put even three or four tonnes a year into the market I honestly believe it will dramatically reduce poaching. Those people who have their horn confiscated, it’s a big loss for them. They’ve got to accept that when they buy from a poacher it may be a bit cheaper, but they may lose that money. Or they may even be arrested. So now we’ll be giving them a legal option, so at least they can compare it with the illegal risk and profit.
What about animal rights objectors?
You can never get through to the animals rights activists. They will never be on the same page. We know they are quite influential. That is certainly a problem. But don’t forget whilst animal rights activists are mostly anti-killing, this is not killing. So they should be less ferocious about their opposition.
I’m quite sure if I could speak to David Attenborough for half an hour, I could make him see the light. Because if you let us have our way, in 20 or 30 years time I guarantee you will have enough rhinos to stock your wilderness areas and you won’t have to cut their horns, because you will have enough horn to supply the market.
You want to harvest horn from living animals. Why not just use horn from natural mortality?
It’s illogical. If I leave it, my rhino, when it dies at the age of forty years, will yield maybe 4 to 10 kg, maybe 12 kilos. But over 40 years I’m going to supply the market with 50 or 60 kg from that rhino. I am prolonging the animal’s life because I am feeding it and looking after it, and it and its wife are producing many more young to stock the wilderness areas.
My tame, supplementary-fed rhinos, they are not spoilt forever because they are here, they can be very easily taken to wilderness areas, they can be your wild roaming rhinos. But I’m not going to send them there now because they will be poached.
If we go for a legalised trade in natural mortalities only, Kruger National Park is going to check it’s stockpile. They have hundreds of horns that were knocked off in trailers. Rhinos lose their horns in the veld. We have hundreds of horns that have been knocked off in fights, the animals are still alive. How are you going to tell the horns that come from natural mortality? That opens it up to the CITES officer who is issuing the permit to just issue it anyway, and it opens it up to more corruption in this country when we actually need less.
The big point is, you have a farmer who owns 10 rhino, and five are males. He has an old bull, he decides to sell it, but nobody is buying rhinos. He can’t get a permit for someone to come and shoot it. Now he’s going to be very tempted to see that rhino get a little lead poisoning in the brain. So he’s got a ‘natural mortality’ and he can sell the horn. Whether he gets a hunter to kill it or he fakes a natural mortality, either way he’s killing a rhino that gives him eight or nine kilos of horn, yet he’s capable of growing another 40 or even 50. So where’s the common sense?
Would you be content if, as a first step, CITES agreed to legal trade in horn only from natural mortality?
We need to supply the market and that will go a certain way to supplying the market. I’m wealthy enough to go on farming rhinos for the rest of my life without legalisation. If you talk to an investment guru he would tell you the last thing you sell is your rhino horn. Sell all your properties, shares, whatever, keep all your rhino horn. So leave my rhino horn in the vault if you like, take out the ones that have died – but who the hell’s going to prove which one died and didn’t die anyway? Anything that you can supply, any rhino horn you can supply to the Far East, is good not bad. Take all those bloody things out of museums, out of people’s attics, send them to China. It’ll save some of my rhinos being poached. To me that’s logic. But the world doesn’t see it that way. But where does that leave me? It may see me losing out, but it doesn’t leave me wrong.
But no-one knows the size of stockpiles or demand…
Absolutely correct. But you are supplying that demand now with rhinos that have been killed. And because you’ve driven it underground you’re never going to know exactly what it is. To me that is stupid. You will find out how big it is if you legalise it.
If demand grows, the price will grow. But don’t forget we will all have an enormous amount of money to protect our rhinos, including the national parks, whereas now we’ve got nothing. There’s no doubt you will still have the poacher, but now the buyer isn’t going to be so keen, because he’s got a legal option he does not have now. He’s going to judge the risk and profit. The higher the price goes the more likely it is going to be worth the risk for the poacher, but also the more money you’re going to have for protection.
Do you have confidence that CITES will eventually back legal trade?
CITES has 177 members. Of those, three quarters don’t have a continental clue and don’t care. They would be available to be swayed, monetarily or any other way, and the western powers in their stupidity would probably vote no. Europe would almost certainly vote in a block. Unless someone explains the poor rhino’s plight to them, they will probably vote no. What South Africa should do is get a contingent of rhino experts – Richard Emslie, Mike Eustace, Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, Anthony Hall-Martin – and go and explain to the governments of the world the pros and cons, the facts, not the rubbish you get on social media.