Meet the man trying to save endangered rhinos – by selling their horns

A new BBC documentary tells the story of John Hume, a man who says he wants to protect the animals by trading parts of them. But is it conservation or commerce?

Getty, TL

Here’s a sobering fact. If the black market price for elephant ivory is currently around $1,000 a kilo, how much do you suppose for rhino horn? Forget doubling that figure or even multiplying it by ten. The end price being paid by ruthless dealers is an astonishing $60,000 a kilo.

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And with an average rhino horn weighing anything up to four kilos you can see why this majestic creature – on the planet for 40 million years but now numbering no more than 25,000 in the wild – is in such peril.

But one man believes he has the answer to the poaching crisis – amputate their horns and thus make the rhino of no value to the hunters. It’s a painless and straightforward procedure and even among committed animal conservationists it isn’t a totally unpalatable solution.

But it’s what rhino breeder John Hume wants to do with the horn that’s made him such a controversial figure. In order to keep his South African farm profitable he says he needs to sell it. And at nearly $250,000 for a single horn, it’s easy to see why.

John Hume, the world’s largest private rhino breeder (BBC, TL)
John Hume, the world’s largest private rhino breeder (BBC, TL)

Hume, 75, features in a compelling new documentary, Trophy, whose TV premiere is on BBC4 this week. He spoke to us ahead of a London screening. “I am convinced that I have the recipe to save rhinos from extinction,” he says. “You have got to breed better and protect better – that’s what they need and I am doing both. I have proved that my system works.”

Hume’s “system” is to breed rhinos and sell them on. With a stock of more than 1,500 animals, including 500 breeding cows, he’s the world’s leading supplier of young rhinos. This year he’s anticipating producing around 200 calves.

But, he says, it comes at a huge cost – a bill that can only be met by selling the horn. “I cannot continue my project without serious money coming in. I spend five million Rand a month [£300,000], slightly more than half of which is on security. I don’t have anything against programmes to reduce demand for rhino horn – do it by all means – but don’t kill my rhinos while you are doing it.”

What concerns conservationists is that even though there’s an international ban on the sale of rhino horn, Hume has won a legal battle in South Africa to sell it there. The fear is it will find its way across porous borders and ignite a new worldwide trade.

Philip Glass, a Texan Big Game Hunter, poses in a trophy room (BBC, TL)
Philip Glass, a Texan Big Game Hunter, poses in a trophy room (BBC, TL)

Charlie Mayhew, chief executive of the animal conservation charity Tusk, elaborates: “If you took every horn off every rhino that exists in Africa today you still wouldn’t satisfy demand. But if you flood the market two things are going to happen. The price will drop and you’ll then stimulate demand for a product that, in this day and age, there is no place for.”

But under Hume’s plan, wouldn’t that at least mean the rhinos weren’t being poached? “When you dehorn a rhino, you have to leave some of the horn behind. There have been plenty of reserves in Africa that have dehorned rhino and still lost some of those to poachers. Even a tiny amount of rhino horn is very valuable.

“I don’t question John Hume’s commitment to the rhino species, but he was a businessman and I can’t help feeling that he saw this as a business opportunity. He is not interested in keeping the rhino in the wild. For him it’s a product. It’s a commodity.”

Hume, though, is unrepentant. “Northern Australia sells two million crocodile skins a year. They kill the croc – two million every year. Does everyone shout at the Aussies for killing two million crocs? No, not at all. The poor rhino isn’t any different.

“Dehorning the animals is part of their protection. It’s lessening the reward and increasing the risk to the poacher. I want to have zero poaching and in order to do that I must dehorn my rhinos.”

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Storyville – Trophy: the Big Game Hunting Controversy is on Monday 9.00pm BBC4