In Klerksdorp, South Africa, sits the world’s largest rhino farm, home to 1,300 rhinos, or a little more than 4 percent of the world’s rhino population.
Photographer Brent Stirton, who grew up in South Africa, says, “You would maybe see three or four together in the wild … You wouldn’t see this.”
The farm is owned by John Hume, who breeds the rhinos for their horns. As Stirton points out, if you look closely, you can see that the rhinos in the photo have recently had their horns cut.
Rhino horn is more valuable than gold, meaning Hume has been able to make a living through trading—the approximately five tons of horns he has in storage could bring him around $50 million in profit. In 2009, South Africa passed a ban on the trade of rhino horn, essentially dropping the value of his stockpile to zero. Hume sued the government, and the ban was overturned in May.
Rhino horn trade, as well as rhino farming, is a complex and controversial subject. Stirton was sent to cover the topic for a special investigation featured in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Stirton saw the operation for the first time in 2012. “It’s like looking at cattle,” he says. “It’s not how you’re used to seeing [rhinos]. It’s interesting.”
For Stirton, the challenge in pulling off this photo was one of access rather than technical detail—in fact, no fancy accessories or lighting were needed. “For these kinds of scenes you just have to wait for the arrangement of the rhinos to be as interesting as possible,” he says. “It’s a simple shot, but in [the larger] context it’s important.”
The topic of rhino farming has sparked fierce debate, with many arguing that, rather than decrease poaching as proponents claim, it instead reinforces and legitimizes the trade. Stirton sees the operation as a “commodification of wild animals.” And the images themselves have an unnatural feel.
“[The rhino farm] is the center of human dominance over the planet,” he tells me. “It’s contrary to nature. This animal is not meant to be in this situation.”
To Stirton, the picture “is part of a larger crisis over the demand for horns,” as well as a comment on our value systems.
“[This photo] is not about crafting a scene or building a set,” he says. “It’s access to the real thing. It’s creating a conversation about civilization.”
Morgan McCloy is an associate photo producer for National Geographic.