Three hours outside Johannesburg, the gravel road to John Hume’s home slices through grasslands tinged a parched amber hue as the winter dry season fades. The former hotel mogul owns the world’s largest privately held rhino population: 2,000 southern white rhinoceroses, roaming 21,000 acres of former cropAnd cattle lands. A 60-mile long electrified fence rings the property. Its two-fold role is to keep the pachyderms in and poachers out.
Hume has not lost a rhino to poachers in almost five years, thanks to formidable security. Over the past decade though, state-run parks have been overwhelmed by poachers, who can sell a single rhino horn for six-figure sums. As those wild populations decline, research suggests nearly half of South Africa’s estimated 12,300 white rhinos are now in private hands. With the trend of private breeding growing rapidly, some experts say this number may even have already surpassed 50 percent.
But the fate of Hume’s rhinos—and South Africa’s unusual game privatization experiment—hang in the balance. In December 2020, a government panel recommended phasing out intensive and captive rhino breeding in the country, as part of a broader set of policies for wildlife conservation. According to the panel and a subsequent government policy paper, captive breeding operations like the one owned by Hume are potentially harming the species’ future.
In an email to Undark, the panel’s chair, Pamela Yako, expressed two concerns about intensive breeding and management: “that this, firstly, compromises the genetics of the population and secondly compromises their ability to independently survive in the wild.”
While Yako and her colleagues acknowledge the role of private reserves in helping to build up rhino populations, they conclude it’s time to move the more intensively managed private populations back into wilder habitats.
The panel’s report has been accepted by the South African cabinet, signaling top-level political support. After a period of public comment, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment will refine the policy and then draft a whitepaper to send to Parliament.
Private rhino owners and conservationists are alarmed at the prospect of losing their herds. They fear the policy will make southern white rhinos even more vulnerable to poaching. “We have rhino in well-protected zones,” said Pelham Jones, chairman of the Private Rhino Owners Association, or PROA. Now, he added, “the government is recommending that these captive breeding operations, which have proven to be highly, highly successful, and are achieving the best breeding outcome one could hope for, are to be shut down.” The group is considering all options, including a legal challenge that would potentially ensnare the process in years of legal wrangling.
Questions about how to best preserve a species are at stake. The politics are fraught as well, and charged by South Africa’s racial tensions: Proponents of the new policy point out that the country’s Black majority has often been excluded from the benefits of rebounding game populations. By PROA’s own estimates, there are between 150 and 180 private rhino owners in South Africa; nearly all of them are White.
None of them has an operation as large as Hume’s, whose herd may account for up to 13 percent of the global population of white rhinos. His ranch appears to be a prime target for the new legislation. In her email, Yako expressed concerns about “a single operation that has a large number of rhino under intensive management and breeding”—seemingly a reference to Hume, although Eleanor Momberg, a spokesperson for the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, wrote in an email to Undark that Yako and other panelists were no longer available for further comment because their contracts had expired.
The new policy could eventually undermine the legal basis for Hume’s breeding project, leaving the herd in limbo. It’s unclear who would take over Hume’s herd—and how a South African state balancing intense fiscal pressures with massive social needs would pay for a mass rhino relocation.
Sitting in his modest home office, which is adorned with rhino pictures and carvings, Hume maintained he is adding to an endangered species’ numbers. “Surely that’s what we all want,” he told Undark. “Show me the good grazing, and assure me that you can keep the bullets away, and I will show you my rhinos thriving.”
Africa is your home to two of the five surviving rhinoceros species: the larger white rhino, a grass grazer, and the smaller black rhino, which browses on trees and bushes. European settlers had already killed thousands of these animals by the late 19th-century. Every southern white rhino today is descended from a single population in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. The animals were down to a handful of dozen in the 1890s.
From this bastion—now called the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park—the population rebounded. The 1960s saw a flood of rhinos and a government agency called the Natal Parks Board began selling animals and donating them to other African reserves and zoos around world. In 1986, the Natal Parks Board began to sell animals to private companies. Five years later, South Africa’s government passed the Game Theft Act. This law allows people to own rhinos or other game on their land provided that it is enclosed with fencing.
There are critics to the law. In a 2015 dissertation, scholar Dhoya Snijders described the act as “one of the largest and most unnoticed transfers of common goods to private landowners in the country’s history.”
The new legislation allowed game ranchers to rapidly accumulate rhinos for profit, ecotourists, and expensive hunts. Nowadays, most owners also slice off the animals’ horns and store them, in the event that a now 44-year-old global moratorium on the rhino horn trade is lifted. Jones said that trading rhinohorn could help to regulate its illicit trade and generate substantial revenue to pay for the large costs of managing and conserving the species. Comprised of keratin—the substance in human fingernails—rhino horn can grow back after it is trimmed, an operation that entails tranquilizing the animal. De-horning is also used to stop poachers from pursuing their ultimate goal.
According to estimates by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there were 18,800 white rhinos living in South Africa in 2010. At least 5,500 of these were privately owned.
But as demand for rhino horn grew in newly-affluent Asian economies such as Vietnam—where consumers prize its alleged medicinal properties—poaching surged. In South Africa, a record 1,215 rhinos had been poached in 2014.
Although poachers have taken fewer animals since then, they still take hundreds of animals every year. The activity has centered on Kruger National Park, South Africa’s flagship wildlife reserve. The park is vast—roughly the size of New Jersey—making it difficult for the cash-strapped government to police. Poaching has been encouraged by the persistent poverty in neighboring areas.
As state losses continue to mount, poachers are now increasingly targeting private reserves. According to government data, 15% of rhinos poached during 2019 were found on private property. That number rose to 30 percent during the first six month of 2021. Security is a major investment for owners who can afford it. Many small-scale rhino ranchers have had to sell their animals due to rising costs.
At least so far, the scale of Hume’s operation—and his deep pockets—have fended off poachers. At Hume’s “Ops Center,” 10 TV screens line one wall. Radars and thermal cameras monitor the property, covering the rhinos’ range and the public roads that cut past the ranch. The flat, grassy terrain makes it ideal for motion-detecting radars. They cannot penetrate buildings or trees. Hidden speakers sound warnings when an intruder crosses the electrified fence. A team rushes to catch him.
“We are always ready, and we can fly a chopper to the scene quickly if we need to,” said Brandon Jones, a helicopter pilot and Hume’s head of security, with a handgun holstered to his hip. The team’s arsenal includes assault rifles; the poachers are also heavily armed. Hume, who refers to the team as his “private army,” said security costs him $2 million per year.
The investment seems to be paying off. While poachers killed 32 of Hume’s rhinos between 2007 and 2017, he says he has not lost an animal since. His rhinos were more often killed by lighting strikes.
Hume said that the operation had accumulated almost 9 tons of rhinohorn, which is worth a nine-figure sum in the black market. But, he said, his passion for rhinos was driven by the species’ plight in the cross-hairs of poachers, not potential profits. “I always liked breeding,” he said. “I became aware in the early ‘90s of the slaughter of rhino elsewhere in Africa. They were being slaughtered to extinction.” Around that time, he purchased his first 10 animals.
Today, driving around the property, it’s possible to see clumps of rhinos amid the windswept landscape of long wild grass, punctuated by the occasional tree. Sometimes, the only sign of the big critters is their distinctive scat in the soil.
IThis gated fortress is just one of many. the number of rhinos on Hume’s ranch has swelled: Between 2008, when he started breeding at his current ranch, and September 2021, Hume’s rhinos had given birth to some 1,690 calves. It is still unclear if this growth is a positive for rhino conservation or a liability for future generations.
Yako and others who are critical of captive breeding have raised concerns over the possibility that the ranch might lead to domestication (a fate that has historically not been experienced in large African mammal species) or render the rhino unsuitable as a rewilding animal.
Hume’s rhinos are divided into breeding areas surrounded by electric fencing averaging 1,200 acres. The animals are free to roam, graze, or mate within their allotted areas. Each enclosure or camp has a ranger, who often rides on horseback, to do a daily headcount. Still, Michelle Otto, Hume’s resident and full-time veterinarian, said the animals are far from domesticated. “We are only on our second generation now,” she said, as she prepared medicine for an old cow rhino with hip problems. “I’ve been chased into a tree by a white rhino here because I went in on foot, and one didn’t take a liking to me, and she stormed me.”
Otto said the animals can be habituated to certain vehicles—but, she noted, even wild Kruger rhinos are now accustomed to cars. The ranch does supplemental feeding, mostly in the dry winter months, which Otto said was at most 40 percent of the rhinos’ daily intake. “The rest they take off the veld,” she said.
Some of Hume’s rhinos have already been successfully reintroduced into the wild. Hume sold his last 16 black rhinos—famed for their ornery temperament—to the small kingdom of Eswatini, which borders South Africa. “This group of rhinos has been suitable for introduction, save for one young male which was hand-raised,” wrote Mick Reilly, conservation and security executive with Eswatini’s parks, in an email.
“Hume’s white rhinos as a whole would be suitable for re-introduction into the wild,” added Reilly, who has visited the ranch.
Yako and other people have expressed concern about the genetic diversity among rhinos in captive breeding population. Even in the wild rhino genetics pose serious concerns: A century ago, when populations were so low the bottleneck reduced the species’ genetic variability. Petra Kretzschmar is a German biologist and rhino expert who says that this situation made the species more vulnerable to diseases and fertility problems.
Rhinos often mate with their relatives, which adds to the problem. “Inbreeding is unfortunately a big threat to the white rhino population,” Kretzschmar wrote in an email. “It is therefore very important to prevent rhinos from inbreeding.”
2020 study of rhino breeding patterns on a large private ranch in South Africa’s northern Limpopo province, Kretzschmar and several colleagues found that white rhinos are not choosy about mating with kin. The journal published the study. Evolutionary Applications, found “no sign of inbreeding avoidance: Females tended to mate more frequently with closely related males.” The researchers recommended rotating breeding bulls every six years—the time it takes a female to reach sexual maturity—between reserves.
Kretzschmar, who has visited Hume’s ranch, said policies there do effectively address the issue. Otto keeps meticulous records in a studbook to prevent inbreeding. Compared to the private reserve where her study was conducted, Kretzschmar said in a phone interview, Otto “has the benefit that the rhinos can be monitored much better,” as they are put into a smaller spaces that can be more readily observed.
“So her records are much more accurate, which results in the fact that she knows exactly who has fathered whom and can immediately move an animal to a different camp to prevent inbreeding,” said Kretzschmar.
In the paper, Kretzschmar—who also does paid consulting for a private game ranch—and her co-authors said South Africa’s private reserves may be the last refuge for the species.
Still, Hume’s approach has critics. “In John Hume’s case, there is control over the breeding,” said Dave Balfour, an ecologist and member of the IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group who contributed to the government report arguing for reimagining rhino conservation in the region. He says these breeding strategies “are not anywhere near the gold standard.”
“A natural rhino population has 50/50 male/female” Balfour said, adding that Hume’s project had somewhere around 50 cows to three or four bulls. “That is not a natural mating selection system.” (In a WhatsApp message, Otto defended the ranch’s arrangement. “We are a breeding operation, therefore we are skewed towards having higher female densities in a set location than in the wild,” she wrote, adding that females are permitted to choose among two or three bulls.)
Others are concerned about rhino horn stockpiling and see a profit motive behind conservation. “Are you trying to mask an economic incentive behind a conservation philosophy?” asked Neil Greenwood, the Southern African director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, an NGO. “I don’t think that the captive breeding is necessarily the most effective way to protect those animals.”
AIssues There are larger questions about South Africa’s future wildlife, with its large and charismatic animals having rebounded. Many are in private hands: According to the government report today, there are 9,000 private Game Ranches in South Africa that cover approximately 50 million acres.
Concerns about equity have been raised by the rapid growth of private game reserve. According to the report, South Africa is among the most unequal societies in the world. World BankConsequently, land ownership patterns are still skewed in favor the White minority.
According to the government policy document, many communities with historical ties have been excluded from the current conservation arrangement. “The forceful removal of people from the land led to the current South African ‘Wildlife Model,’ the report says, “where the largest percentage of wildlife land is owned by the White minority and by the state, with few wildlife resources on community lands.”
Critics note that these conservation conflicts are occurring amid persistent government failures, which they claim is a result of failing to implement land reforms. “The disparities in ownership in the wildlife industry somewhat reflects what we see in other sub-sectors of agriculture, where participation of Black farmers remains marginal,” said Wandile Sihlobo, the chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa and author of a recent book on land reform in the country.
The government panel calls for the eradication of fences that separate many conservation areas as part of its vision. The report envisions “an authentic wild sense of place” with “larger contiguous areas containing vibrant self-sustaining populations” of elephants, buffalos, lions, leopards, rhinos, and other species.
That’s far from the present reality: In South Africa all megafauna except leopards are contained in fenced areas of some kind. And the government panel’s broader vision of wildness has elicited some skepticism from conservationists—and private rhino owners. In a written submission raising objections to the new policy, PROA argues that “human beings in South Africa and across the world simply do not have the luxury of a utopian concept of wild animals roaming across millions of hectares of unfenced, uninhabited, and human-free plains.”
Momberg sent an email explaining that Barbara Creecy, minister for Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, preferred not comment. She also explained that officials are still reviewing public comments to the proposal.
For now, Hume’s rhino breeding operation is continuing to grow. On a recent morning, Otto and other Hume employees prepared to dehorn 19 bulls—a brisk, clinical undertaking.
Although rhinos are kept on a ranch with careful management, they can still be dangerous. Otto fired a dart at each rhino with a tranquilizer gun-like weapon from her Toyota Landcruiser’s window. It was usually about 50 yards away. A member of the crew, which could have been up to 15, pulled a blindfold over the rhino’s eyes as it wobbled. Several men then ran in to help the animal stand upright. Once the rhino was lying on its chest, one of the ranch’s managers used a hand-held electric saw to do the trimming.
“We are cutting above the growth plate,” Otto said as the saw sliced through the horn of a 2-ton bull. “The section they are trimming is excess horn that contains no blood vessels or nerves.”
After trimming the rhino, Otto injected an antidote into the tranquilizer.
“You don’t want to be next to him when he wakes up,” she cautioned. Although the situation was not natural, a rhino is a rhino.