John Hume once had an audacious plan. To combat rhino poaching, the South African entrepreneur aimed to create a massive rhinoceros breeding farm where the animals would be kept safe and their numbers could flourish on his vast, privately owned savanna. He’d fund the operation by sawing off and selling his animals’ horns.
With a legal rhino horn trade and a consistent supply from farms like his, he reasoned, horn prices would eventually drop and make poaching less attractive. Made of keratin, the same material as fingernails, rhino horn can grow back at a rate of about four inches per year. So selling horn, mostly to buyers in Asia for traditional medicine, carvings, and jewelry, could be sustainable—if it was ever legalized, according to his plan.
Now, about 15 years after he officially launched his farm and still without any legal international trade, the 81-year-old claims he’s reached a financial breaking point. He started with close to 200 southern white rhinos and now has almost 2,000.
This month, the rhinos and his entire 21,000-acre farm operation will be put up for auction online, with a starting bid of $10 million. Also for sale are his five hippos; 11 giraffe; and hundreds of buffalo, sheep, and goats—though not the gigantic horn collection he’s amassed. The sale begins on April 26 and ends on May 1, international Save the Rhino Day.
Hume announced he wants bidders who have “passion for conserving rhinos and the means to keep the breeding project going”—but exactly who might have the funds and the willingness remains an open question. And whether this sale could help conservation hinges entirely on the buyer.
“This case really does bring into focus a lot of issues that have been either put in the back burner or conveniently ignored when it comes to rhino conservation,” says Taylor Tench, a senior policy analyst who specializes in rhinos at the Environmental Investigation Agency, a watchdog group with offices in the United States and United Kingdom. For instance, though Hume's operation has helped increase rhino numbers in captivity, Tench questions how the practice is benefiting the species in the wild.
Tammy Hume, the auction’s spokesperson and John Hume’s daughter-in-law, told National Geographic that the farm’s finances underscore that any buyer—or buyers—will need a stronger revenue stream going forward. The hope, she says, is that it could come from biodiversity credits—a scheme akin to carbon credits in which individuals or countries would be rewarded for environmental stewardship.
Yet as with global rhino horn sales, that type of credit system isn’t a reality. Hume, who earned his wealth from real estate development and had some prior experience breeding rhinos, financed most of the farm out of pocket.
John Scanlon, a former secretary-general of CITES, the global treaty that regulates the wildlife trade and prohibits international horn sales, is cautiously hopeful about the sale. “There are more white rhino on the planet as a result of [Hume’s] intervention,” he says. “There’s an opportunity to relocate animals—where there are willing buyers.”
Any buyer, however, will also have to take on the cost of defending the animals. Hume spends more than $425,000 per month on farm operations—with more than half of that sum supporting security, according to posted auction documents. Since the farm’s last poaching incident in March 2017, Hume’s Platinum Rhino Conservation Project has managed to keep poachers out, but it’s required a behemoth security apparatus of helicopter patrols, a radar system, and dozens of armed game rangers and dogs.
There are now only about 22,000 rhinos across Africa. Most are near-threatened southern white rhinos, like those at Hume’s farm, though there are also almost-extinct northern white rhinos, and about 6,000 black rhinos, which are slightly smaller animals whose three subspecies are critically endangered.
Hume’s almost 2,000 white rhinos comprise a sizable portion of South Africa’s—and the world’s—wild population. Kruger National Park, home to the largest concentration, has long been a poaching hot spot, and it now has fewer than 4,000 rhinos—down from more than 10,000 in 2010.
The picture for rhinos isn’t rosy. Poachers killed about 450 rhinos in South Africa last year and roughly the same number the prior year, too. In Kenya and Zimbabwe, rhino poaching has dropped, but in South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia, it has “increased or effectively remained at consistent, concerning levels in recent years,” Tench says.
Moreover, the rhino horn market has been complex to interpret during the pandemic: Transport challenges likely fueled stockpiling of rhino horn and other wildlife goods, at least temporarily affecting rhino horn prices and supply. Perhaps, some conservationists fear, demand—and poaching—will climb as the world reopens and the stockpile is exhausted.
Captive rhinos could theoretically give a boost to wild populations: In 2009, five eastern black rhinos born in European zoos were successfully released into Rwanda’s Akagera National Park.
Last year Hume announced that he planned to release a hundred of his white rhinos into the wild each year, but no one offered to fund the effort.
That’s not surprising, according to Tench. There are very intense logistical and security requirements involved in finding a habitat with appropriate food, water, space, and safety from poachers, he says. It’s also unknown whether Hume’s rhinos, which are accustomed to supplemental feedings, would even be able to survive without ongoing assistance.
Complications in new places are also common.
In 2018, 11 black rhinos moved from two of Kenya’s national parks to another national park by WWF-Kenya and the Kenya Wildlife Service died, largely due to dehydration and disease. Four of six wild black rhinos that nonprofit African Parks attempted to relocate from South Africa to Chad died too, likely from starvation.
Rewilding, however, remains John Hume’s hope. “Captive breeding isn’t a forever situation. It’s an intervention to help prevent a species from going extinct,” Tammy Hume says.
Historically, South Africa has exported hundreds of rhinos for breeding and display at zoos. Between 2010 and 2021, China imported more than a hundred live white rhinos from South Africa, according to National Geographic’s review of CITES trade records.
Conservation groups have worried that a Chinese company might start breeding rhinos and set up its own domestic horn market—skirting CITES restrictions—but there’s no evidence of such horn operations currently, says Mark Jones, head of policy for the United Kingdom-based Born Free Foundation, a nonprofit that opposes taking animals from the wild.
“It is unlikely that South Africa would knowingly allow live rhino exports to China or any other CITES party if it suspects the rhinos will be utilized for medicinal use. However, unlikely is not the same as impossible,” says Tench.
Asked if the Humes would sell their rhinos to China, Tammy says Platinum’s current focus is selling off the entire farm in one block, and she wouldn’t comment on if they would refuse certain purchasers.
State-run entities, provincial level parks within South Africa, private reserves, zoological institutions, or foreign countries could all be bidders for at least some of the rhinos, though there isn’t a scarcity of rhinos for zoos, Tench notes.
African Parks, which manages 22 national parks and protected areas in Africa, told National Geographic that it will not be a bidder. No other individual or group has publicly said it would bid on the animals, either.
The South African government says it can’t yet comment on if it would buy any of Hume’s animals or prohibit certain kinds of sales to foreign buyers—something that’s within their purview under CITES, since they’d need to issue export permits.
A spokesperson for the country’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, Albi Modise, says the agency is “committed to a meeting” with Hume “in order to get a sense of this matter and explore possible options.”