The horns of a dilemma
Nigel Richardson meets a controversial ranch owner who says he can protect the rhino from the brutality of poaching
The rhino is targeted by a posse of pickups. The lead vehicle accelerates across the grassland, the driver slews to a halt and, standing in the back, I watch as a silver gun barrel pokes through the open window on the passenger side. The rhino, in a group of three, takes a shot to the hindquarters. She swerves and staggers then runs for her life. While we wait for her to drop, the woman who pulled the trigger jumps out of the Land Cruiser and lights up a cigarette.
As with so much of the debate surrounding wildlife conservation, this scenario is not all it might seem. The rhino has been hit not by a bullet but by a syringe containing anaesthetic, which empties itself on impact. It was fired by Michelle Otto, who, drawing on her cigarette, describes herself as ‘the crazy vet who’s tired’ (she’s been out since early morning without a break, and it’s now early afternoon). Six minutes later, and half a mile from where she was darted, the rhino starts to feel the effects of the anaesthetic. As we catch up with her in the pickup she paddles her feet as if she were treading water and starts to keel over.
What follows goes to the very heart of what is currently one of the most hotly contested issues in African wildlife conservation. The rhino’s horns will be removed with an electric reciprocating saw (a painless operation when conducted professionally as the horns, like fingernails, are made of keratin and will grow back) on the orders of a man who wishes to sell rhino horns on the open market and already has a stockpile of six tons, with a potential sale value of tens of millions of pounds. That man is 75-yearold John Hume, who owns the 20,000-acre Buffalo Dream Ranch, several hours’ drive south-west of Johannesburg in South Africa’s North West Province. The ranch is often referred to as ‘the world’s largest rhino farm’ because Hume, a businessman who made his fortune in timeshare resorts, keeps nearly 1,500 (mostly white) rhinos here, harvesting each animal’s horns every two years. His aim is to breed 200 rhinos a year and he insists his motive is not profit but the preservation of a species. ‘I believe I have the recipe here to save the rhino from extinction; I’m convinced of it,’ he says. Many conservationists vehemently disagree.
Hume’s story is one of the principal strands of a new documentary film, entitled Trophy.
The work of the Us-based filmmakers Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, it explores the tensions around hunting, poaching and conservation in Africa with some exceptional access to, and footage of, big-game hunts and the multimillion-dollar industry in America that underpins them (the film contains some shocking scenes and, needless to say, the species that emerges from it with the least dignity is the human). Hume has seen Trophy and likes it. ‘It did what Shaul and Christina said they would do; it made people think,’ he tells me when I visit his ranch to discuss the documentary and the issues arising from it. The film captures the moment when Hume contemplates the mutilated corpse of a poached rhino as her calf circles, squealing in distress (‘F— me, it never stops, does it?’ he says). He has now lost 32 rhinos to poaching at Buffalo Dream Ranch. His response has been twofold: to dehorn the animals so they have no intrinsic value to poachers; and to fight to overturn a moratorium on the domestic trade in rhino horns so he can sell his harvested horns to finance the animals’ ongoing protection. He puts his monthly security bill at five million rand (about £270,000) and says if he isn’t able to sell the horn his money will run out and the rhinos will be left unprotected.
There are 26,000 wild rhinos left in Africa, the majority of them white and 5,000 of them black (the latter are listed as
Hume refers to his rhinos as ‘my darlings’ and says he’s for ‘the underdog’
critically endangered). In 2007, 13 rhinos were poached in South Africa. By 2014 the figure had risen to 1,215 (most of them in Kruger National Park). The poached horn is trafficked by crime syndicates to the Far East – Vietnam and China in particular – where it is highly prized, both as a prestige trophy on a mantelpiece and for its reputed ‘medicinal’ properties. By the time it completes its journey the horn is said to be worth more by weight than gold or heroin. There has been an international ban on the trade since 1977 but it was legal to trade within the borders of South Africa until 2009. Hume claims there is a direct correlation between the timing of the domestic ban and the increase in rhino poaching, which peaked in the country in 2014. ‘The moratorium flared it up, cut all the horn from going to Vietnam,’ he says. ‘So what did they [the Vietnamese] do? They went to Mozambique, did a deal with the poor people of Mozambique to kill our rhinos, and our poaching rocketed from nothing to over a thousand a year.’
His contention is that lifting the ban will alleviate the poaching threat – while freeing up his stockpiled assets to fund further rhino protection. Mainstream conservationists, to whom he refers as ‘animal rightists’, don’t buy it. The CEO of Save the Rhino, Cathy Dean, says it’s ‘completely incorrect’ to link the imposition of the moratorium and the explosive increase in poaching. ‘He’s drawing conclusions from one thing and it’s not exactly cause and effect,’ she says. ‘If you look at the poaching stats, it began in 2007/8 in Zimbabwe, long before the moratorium came into effect. I don’t believe the two are related.’
Furthermore, say critics, reopening the domestic trade in rhino simply creates a conduit to the international criminal syndicates. ‘It’s a big charade,’ says Charlie Mayhew, the chief executive of the Uk-based Tusk Trust, which supports wildlife conservation projects across Africa. ‘No doubt people who have bought the horn have every intention of shipping it out of the country to the Far East, which is against international law. No one else is going to buy it. The borders are porous as hell, they can smuggle it out.’
Trophy follows Hume’s legal challenge to the South African government to have the ban overturned. In April of this year, with the film already in the can, he got his wish, and in August he held his first rhino-horn auction, which took place online (another is scheduled for around the time this article is published). ‘I don’t want to talk too much about that because we’ve said we’ll keep it confidential, but it was very disappointing,’ he says of the first auction. The auction’s website has buttons to convert to Mandarin or Vietnamese text – which makes it user-friendly for potential traders in the East. ‘I wouldn’t mind making it easy [for them],’ he says, before adding that his interest is in selling to Chinese and Vietnamese people living in South Africa – there are 300-400,000 ethnic Chinese people in the country and small numbers of Vietnamese – even though he also acknowledges that there is little domestic demand. (He blames this on the authorities: ‘The problem is, they’re scared of our government. It will use any ruse to prosecute them or me.’) What happens to the purchased horn is not his concern or responsibility, however. ‘Just like your diamonds, your booze, your cigarettes, everything in the world may find its way into a criminal’s hands,’ he says. On another occasion he tells me, ‘Having taken the horn off why not sell it? The more horns you can sell to Vietnam, the more rhinos in Kruger National Park you will save.’
In parallel to John Hume’s story, Trophy follows a ‘sport hunter’ from Texas, Philip Glass, as he pursues his dream of shooting Africa’s ‘big five’ (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino) and bringing back trophies of those kills in the form of tusks, horns, pelts and so on. For the non-hunter, a degree of cognitive dissonance is helpful in approaching the subject of sport hunting – especially when watching the film’s most disturbing scene, in which Glass shoots an elephant. ‘Early on I tried to understand the psyche of an individual who would take joy in killing something like that,’ Shaul Schwarz tells me on the phone from New York. ‘Then I stopped trying to understand. I said, “Who cares? Maybe he’s a psychopath, maybe he’s crazy, it doesn’t matter. Does it [trophy hunting] provide a tool for conservation, yes or no?”’
As the film follows its makers’ journey, it pushes the viewer gently towards the answer yes. Sport hunting, in which rich (mostly American) men in khaki pony up $50,000 (£38,000) for a single elephant and as much as $350,000 for a rhino, may have as its goal the killing of magnificent creatures, but when regulated properly, it has the secondary effects of maintaining habitat, funding anti-poaching efforts, supporting communities and keeping game breeders in business. ‘It’s a real dilemma that the conservation world probably has to face up to,’ says Charlie
‘The more horns you can sell to Vietnam, the more rhinos you will save’
Top John Hume at his ranch in South Africa
Right Staff dehorn one of Hume’s rhinos
Right Hume argues that as well as preventing poachers from targeting them, dehorning his animals and selling the product can fund their protection