Meeting with John Hume.
Whilst visiting South Africa in April and May, @Bugs and I were invited to visit John Hume’s farm: John and Albina Hume you’ll know advocate for legal trade, (which means a sustainable supply of harvested horn where the rhino stays alive), and are anti-illegal trade activists, (which results in rhino being killed through poaching for their horns). They own and manage the largest private rhino breeding operation in South Africa, (having more rhino than Kenya.) I have interviewed John on a couple of occasions for Safaritalk, here and here. From previous communications, they knew my position: I'll admit to sitting on the fence, as an outsider looking in - I don’t have the answer. Any answer: I wish I did. I'm neither qualified nor experienced enough. But I was visiting with an open mind, an unbiased stance: wanting to learn more - unsure whether a legalised trade in rhino horn is the answer to the poaching crisis: whether it will save the rhino. But can it be part of the answer? As someone concerned with wildlife conservation issues, (but not a conservationist), someone worried about the rhino situation and the increasingly brazen poaching for their horns I’m always questioning what is best for the future of the rhino. Conservation or preservation? Trade/no trade? Sustainable use, ie harvesting of rhino horn where horn grows back and even trophy hunting? On the question of trade, (occurring illegally at present), if conservationists are undecided and there is division between them it should be of no surprise that I don’t know:
For instance, Cathy Dean, director of Save the Rhino International in her Safaritalk interview here, responded to the following question
One off stockpile sale vs sustainable long term trade vs no trade: which of these options provides the best possible outcome to prevent the continued poaching crisis and why?
The goal is to have more rhinos in more, larger populations in Range States. There is no clear best option from those you list above; a lot more research and information is required before we – or anyone else – can properly say whether some form of trade would work.
And that was my feeling arriving at John’s ranch. There is no clear best option and we must consider all options if in the best interest of the rhino’s long term viability. I was looking forward to discussing the whole gamut of rhino conservation and trade with them. But on arrival Albina wasn’t there as she was visiting her family in Ukraine.
I arrived at John Hume’s ranch straight from my flight to Johannesburg: a lot of my time in South Africa would be concerned with the rhino issue and this was to be my introduction. The ranch stretches for huge distances and once upon the entrance drive, though you are aware of it being a private property, there is varied veldt: stretching vistas - it’s not a wild wide open space, no mini Kruger Park but at the same time nor is it obviously a livestock farm. It is a well managed South African game ranch of nearly six thousand hectares composed from what were formerly dozens of connecting cattle farms which John purchased to create one open space, fenced according to rules of keeping wild animals. (A farm in comparison doesn’t require special fencing and houses domestic animals.) Dotted around, grey specs distant but also much closer to the game fence are rhino. When I say dotted, I mean, you see them a lot. On John Hume’s ranch one sees a lot of rhino. It made me think what it must have been like in the early part of the 20th century, before large scale hunting, before the poaching, before rhinos were persecuted as pests:
Industrial agriculture came next, clearing many historic rhino habitats for fields and settlements. Farmers and ranchers at the time viewed large herbivores such as rhinos as pests and dangers to their crops.
From Scientific American.
To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect: I had read so many negative comments about John’s ranch and his breeding practices, (I wonder how many of those critical of his methods have taken time to visit like I was doing), but I was to learn that during his twenty three years of experience, John has bred over six hundred and seventy rhinos, a world record! If there is one comment continually echoing round social media about Hume is that he is in it for the money. And yet arriving at his large but unprepossessing house, (contradictory to what I was expecting, ie a lavish safari lodge type affair), we were greeted upon the lawn by a collection of dogs and John himself, fresh from making wors with his family in the outhouse: that is where we began our afternoon.
We were made to feel most welcome, no one stood on ceremony: there were no airs and graces. John may be wealthy, independently so of any possible future income from a legalised trade in rhino horn, but he is a down to earth, normal family guy who is happy to schlep around in old clothes and grind out boerewors in his garage with family and friends whilst sharing a beer and banter.
After settling in we sat down with tea and talked about recent events. In the week preceding our visit, contrary to some reports, twenty six adult rhino had died following an outbreak of Histotoxic Clostridial toxaemia which was attributed to above average rainfall following a period of drought. Another nine had died recently from poaching. Since diagnosing the presence of Clostridium on the property, to date all the rhino have been fully vaccinated against all Clostridial species. In addition, since diagnosing the disease, its clinical symptoms and spreading the word, several other cases of rhino fatalities attributed to Clostridium were reported all over South Africa. Discussing these fatalities was a difficult subject - John wiped tears from his cheek: it was clear how affected he was. Especially at the death of Big Mama, his forty year old rhino cow which had mothered ten calves during her lifetime and was heavily pregnant at the time of her death: the foetus could not be saved. “I know all of my rhino.” He said, each death obviously a personal loss to him - when John Hume is so visibly moved at the death of his rhino, one cannot help but appreciate his emotional investment. At present John is financing the research and development of a Clostridial vaccine specifically for rhino which will benefit both wild and captive bred rhinos in future. When there are so many ‘rhino’ NGO’s operating in South Africa, with the intention of aiding rhino survival, how many of them are interested in inter-agency cooperation with Hume or his rhino? It became clear that a great majority of them want no connection with his work despite his long term struggle to do all he can to safeguard rhino for future generations. Why is that?
We climbed into his old bakie – @Bugs up in back with camera and lens, John driving and I sitting shotgun with his dogs on my lap, at my feet, standing on my legs staring out the window tongues lolling. John’s own story is one worth listening to: his successes as a hotelier and in a taxi business in Rodesia, (where he made most of his fortune): how he’d come to South Africa to become a developer of timeshare resorts, most of which became accredited with a gold crown, and later on, at the age of fifty following his dream to semi-retire on a private game ranch which he developed by consolidating ten run down cattle farms which he purchased next to each other, focusing mainly on rhino conservation.
The sun was beginning to set and the veldt glowed in the golden light. John has both white and black rhino – with a much higher percentage of the former than latter: we drove through both habitats but only saw white. To anyone who states that his ranching practices are intensive, with unhealthy, unhappy animals kept in unsuitable and poor conditions I would ask them to prove their accusations: we saw many rhino roaming freely - none were cramped in confined conditions, (the ranch is subdivided into large, fenced “camps” – equating to thirteen acres of land per one adult rhino) – they were not under each other’s feet. And the amount of mothers and calves we saw was amazing. I am no expert but of those rhino we saw, none looked malnourished, none were kept in bad conditions as some have suggested. Yes, John told me supplementary feeding did take place out of necessity in the winter but this was no battery farm. The rhinos were dehorned but they looked to be “free and wild”, (within the ranch’s physical limitations), and more importantly, they looked to be safe. We were able to approach closely in the vehicle and throw feed to them: they were not aggressive merely inquisitive: but I wouldn’t call them tame, it’s no zoo. Driving back to the house as the light faded, I asked the cost of maintaining the current set up. Twenty four million rand a year holding costs and over three million rand for a private anti-poaching security unit, John replied. Two thousand three hundred rand per rhino, per month, give or take. He admitted he had enough to finance five more years and what then? There’s no income on his property: game auctions, once a year, (of other species), help finance approximately six weeks per annum, if not less. The rest John pays for from his own savings, after selling his timeshare resorts. And so such an undertaking is hugely expensive: the ranch employs fifty staff, (and supports their families), not to mention the rhino orphanage in which, (at the time of my visit), were nineteen calves of varying ages. Seeing first hand the work he and his team are doing with the rhino it strikes me that on his own, without outside donor funding he is doing more to protect these rhino than many other organisations can hope to achieve.
That night we had dinner with John and his family, a traditional babootie accompanied by much alcohol and conversation, debating South African conservation issues long into the night, not solely the rhino question…
Early morning was spent pouring over maps of the ranch, John explaining how the camps work. About rotational grazing, the quality of grass. How upon arrival, rhino would be assigned to camps depending on the area of South Africa from which they came. John would only move them once when on his ranch to increase and improve genetic diversity. Thus, rhinos from one part of the country would be introduced to those from other parts. Calves when old enough would be moved to different camps. It’s important to mix up the gene pool. The logistics of managing such a breeding operation must be immense. We looked at property boundaries and cattle farms nearby which if purchased would increase the overall size immensely. And hunched over his desk, you could hear the enthusiasm in his voice – sense him planning, coming up with new ideas, resolving problems: he is still investing in his rhino, despite no longer being in the market to buy.
After coffee we bade goodbye to John at the house, (we still had the drive to Johannesburg), and stopped to visit the ranch’s rhino orphanage, where, at the time of our visit, nineteen orphaned rhino calves were being cared for by a full time vet and her assistant. Three most recently orphaned by the Clostridium outbreak, and one calf which had been delivered by c section as its mother died. A question: how many rhino calves are being cared for/raised by all the other rhino orphanages in South Africa compared to the number at John’s ranch? How many of these organisations rely on donor funding and promote themselves, their work? Seek and gain national/international recognition? Whilst on John’s ranch, the vet and her assistant quietly get on with their work with John covering all the associated costs. And since the current vet began working here over three years ago, only two calves have died having come in too sick to survive.
The youngest of calves are hand reared, bottle fed until eighteen months when they are weened off milk. As they progress, these calves are settled into holding camps with sheep to which they form a family bond, more so than with the vet / her assistant. We debated whether human companionship is more appropriate, and in the rhino’s best interest, but at Hume’s ranch it is those sheep which play surrogate family. When we approached the pen in which the three youngest were kept, (and one was but a couple of weeks old), they came bouncing up to the gate squealing: they knew the vet meant food: they were like inflatable baby dinosaurs – it’s the only way I can describe them. We were not allowed any physical contact but stood above the wall the photograph them.
Calling to the older calves in another pen there was a mini stampede as they came to the fence. The vet gave us permission to approach them, (obviously the fence separated them from us), but were told to make no contact with their horn, because this would present to a rhino an act of aggression. It was an emotional moment, as they nuzzled against my hand. Each of these rhino are part of the future of their species in South Africa, the whole of Africa. John has achieved an optimum intercalving period of twenty six months, while in national parks such a period takes at least thirty six months or more. John’s rhino breed naturally, unforced, so just how did this compare to the wild? What better chance do his calves have?
I left John Hume’s ranch still unsure whether a legalised trade in horn is the answer to the rhino poaching crisis, aware that some put forward the point that we’ll never know until we try. Whether legal trade of a sustainably harvested product will save the rhino. But what I do know, from my own observations, (and numbers alone are evidence of it, at over 100 births per year), is that the work being done on his property with his rhino breeding operation is proving very successful in increasing rhino numbers – far more so than on initiatives elsewhere. John Hume has more than a thousand rhino comprising both black and white with the objective of two hundred births per annum, which he is close to achieving presently. He said to me, "Happy rhinos, healthy rhinos want to survive. Want to breed." And this was evidenced again and again as it seemed round every bend we saw a mother and calf, some very young indeed.
How many anti-legal trade advocates have visited John Hume’s ranch? Been driven round as I had been? Sat down and discussed the issues face to face with him. Been witness to his passion, his experience, his emotions? Whilst with him, overnight, an afternoon and morning I could never have hoped to learn but a small insight into the ins and outs of such a rhino breeding operation, the complexities of the pro-legal trade argument but John took time out of his busy schedule to explain things simply to me, was patient listening to and answering my many questions, never once displaying any aggression or animosity towards to anti-legal trade advocates despite their public allegations and insults aimed at him, especially in social media circles. In truth, what can they tell him, the man who has bred over six hundred and seventy rhinos in past twenty three years? These organisations and their supporters which have grown in voice in the past couple of years? What do they know over and above that of someone with his hands on experience in rhino breeding? The one thing that divides them, the two sides, is the question of trade, which is happening anyway, illegally at present. The question of money. I wonder, will there ever be a way in which they could and would work in conjunction? For the benefit of the rhino?
If legalised trade was agreed by CITES at COP 17, (with realistically a date of 2018 for implementation of a practical framework), in the interim a number of captive breeding operations, (CBOs), could be established, (not just in South Africa but other range states), based upon Hume’s model, each starting with one hundred head of rhino based upon a ratio of five female to two male. By 2018 such ranches could be bringing in rhino from other parts of the country, (through game auctions etc for genetic variation), breeding, increasing the national herd, so even if trade only worked for five years, already there would be a marked increase in rhino births. Can rhino be better protected on private land than in the wild? Based upon current evidence, one would have to say yes – John Hume, during five years managed to keep all his rhino safe from poaching until last year, when four were poached. During the same period, hundreds of NGO’s and governmental organisations have failed to save two thousand rhinos that were poached in various national parks and tourist resorts. So the question is, should there be more private rhino breeding operations working on the model of Hume’s, in which dehorning takes place? Could local communities run rhino breeding projects with direct benefit to their families to provide safe havens throughout the country?
Cathy Dean, director of Save the Rhino International, in her Safaritalk interview here, responded to the following question,
How important, in your opinion, is it that private owners and farmers continue to breed and maintain rhino herds in South Africa, whether they are pro trade or or not?
It’s vital that private owners and farmers continue to breed and maintain rhino populations in South Africa. Privately owned rhinos in SA account for approx. 25% of the national population, and the land they are held on is collectively is equivalent to the size of Kruger NP.
So why is it, when some conservationists see the importance of rhino farming, that so many people, and you see their views expressed in social media, are vehemently against farmed rhinos? Without private farmers, whatever their standpoint on legalised trade, I feel the rhino would be in a much more precarious state than it is now… If current poaching numbers continue at rate which we have witnessed previously, (One thousand plus in South Africa alone during 2013), then those on John’s farm are very important to the future of rhino in Africa. At what stage will other agencies recognise this importance? When he can no longer afford to fund their care? And what if the COP decision is against trade? Will John Hume continue to manage and protect his rhino?
A blunt question I put to him related to his age. John Hume is no longer a young man. He is seventy two years old. What happens to his dream to breed two hundred rhinos a year if he’s no longer able to run his breeding operation? What happens if he were to die? His response: “Why am I doing this at my age? Why not retire and live a comfortable life on the money I have – I often ask myself the same thing. My wife and children wouldn’t have the money to run such an undertaking as this. Especially if trade is not legalised. So what would happen? Perhaps they’d auction off some of the rhino in order to keep the property afloat. But where would those rhino go? What would happen to them if I die? If my family aren’t able to carry on financially with my dream?”
It’s a good question he posed to me. I didn’t know. And it struck me then that yes, there is a financial interest in his project, he is hoping for a yes vote at COP 17. But he is doing it because he believes that a legalized trade in rhino horn and regular and sustainable supply of horn via harvesting where the rhino stays alive, (rather than a one off stockpile sale), will help to save the rhino for future generations. And for someone who could live extremely comfortably on his investments and personal wealth and not be involved in the stress of maintaining South Africa’s largest private rhino herd, I believe that, as important a factor as predicted future revenue from a legalised trade is, John Hume is more passionate about trying to save the rhino.