The horns of a dilemma

Nigel Richard­son meets a controversial ranch owner who says he can pro­tect the rhino from the bru­tal­ity of poach­ing

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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

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