On a game ranch on the plains outside Johannesburg, where a few shrubs are the only things that break the view across the vast, flat landscape, a handful of workers drop feeding bins from a flat-bed truck.
They’re watched by about a dozen rhino waiting for feeding time. There’s something odd about the animals, though: They don’t have horns.
John Hume, who owns the ranch, is a rhino farmer. He made his fortune in taxis and hotels in Zimbabwe and South Africa, and retired to breed animals 25 years ago. He now owns 1,300 — more than anyone else in the world. After buying his first in 1992, he says he learned rhinos are docile, even friendly.
“So as personalities go, they don’t deserve to be persecuted at all. And yet, they’re subjected to the most persecution of any animal,” Hume says.
Now, South Africa’s highest court is preparing to decide whether to uphold the country’s domestic ban on trading rhino horn.
Supporters of the ban say striking it down would encourage international smuggling of rhino horn, which fuels poaching.
But private rhino owners like Hume contend that meeting demand for rhino horn is the best way to curb poaching and save the species.
Rhinos are being poached due largely to Asian appetites for their horn. The horn is composed primarily of keratin, also the chief component in hair and fingernails. But in many Asian countries, it’s believed that ingesting powdered rhino horn is a cure for a host of ailments.
Julian Rademeyer is the author of Killing for Profit, which examines the illegal trade in rhino horn. He says rumors of horn’s medicinal benefits float through the markets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. And recently, it’s become a status symbol like diamonds and ivory.
“The people that can afford it are very wealthy businessmen in many cases, wealthy government officials, people with positions of power and status,” Rademeyer says.
On the black market, the price of rhino horn can fetch more than gold. In an effort to stem poaching, international trade was banned in 1977 under CITES, the multilateral treaty that regulates wildlife trade in order to protect endangered species.
In South Africa, domestic trade in rhino has been illegal since 2009. But poaching has only increased.
Hume says the only way to save the species it to sell the horn.
In order to protect his animals, Hume says he spends more than $200,000 a month in security.
“I will run out of money. I will run out of protection of my rhinos,” he says. “I will not indefinitely be able to afford the helicopters, the soldiers, the radars.”
Rhino horn grows back if not fully removed from the animal, and Hume regularly trims it off his animals. He has stockpiled 5 tons of the stuff.
For a brief period, it looked like Hume was going to get his way. He sued the government to overturn the domestic ban and won. The moratorium was dropped in May.
Then the government appealed, and while the case awaits proceedings at the Constitutional Court, the ban is back in place.
Many conservationists disagree with Hume’s approach. They have chosen to fight “demand-reduction” battles to combat poaching — meaning they would rather control Asian appetite for horn than legalize the trade.
Allison Thomson is an activist who runs Outraged South African Citizens Against Rhino Poaching, a group that provides game parks with anti-poaching equipment. She says legalizing the domestic trade would send a mixed message.
“It makes any demand-reduction campaign absolutely worthless,” she says.
The South African government has previously applied to legalize international trade. Thea Carroll, with the Department of Environmental Affairs, says it’s not planning to anytime soon.
She says the government investigated ending the local ban in 2012, but decided it wasn’t ready then.
“We will only allow the domestic trade if we are convinced that our system will be in place to ensure that it doesn’t allow for leakage and smuggling — so, strong measures in place to regulate it. We provide for regular inspections in terms of inspections of rhino horns, audits of the stockpiles, etc.,” Carroll says.
Meaning, if the court strikes down the ban, there could be some time before the government issues permits for sales.
Rhino farmers and the South African government do agree on one thing: Rhino horn is a valuable asset worth hanging onto. The government has its own stockpile of 25 tons.