Rhino breeder John Hume now has more than 1 400 rhinos on his ranch near Klerksdorp in North West. Picture: Tony Carnie

Klerksdorp - John Hume owns more rhinos than anyone else in the world. All told there are 1 405 living on his closely guarded wildlife ranch near Klerksdorp, about 200km south-west of Johannesburg.

To put that figure into perspective, Hume personally owns more rhinos than the whole of Kenya.

Collectively, with 330 other private South African rhino owners, Hume and his colleagues own more than 30% of all the rhinos in this country - more than the total combined population of rhinos throughout Africa (excluding South Africa).

The former holiday resorts developer retired 24 years ago to set up a new game ranch close to the Kruger National Park and began to build up what would become the world’s largest privately owned rhino herd.

In 2008, worried about the rapidly increasing rhino poaching rate, he shifted more than 200 rhinos from his old Mauricedale ranch in Mpumalanga to a more secure property in North West.

“Mauricedale was a beautiful piece of Africa, but there was so much tree canopy cover and other hiding places that poachers could have hidden there for a week and you would never see them.”

So he moved his operation to a new “flat, ugly and very dry” property in North West, which now has more than 1 400 rhinos - 953 of which were born and bred on Hume’s properties.

When Independent Media visited the property last week close to 100 rhinos could be seen munching from feeding troughs in an area the size of a large soccer pitch.

Hume insists that this is abnormal. Normally, the rhinos mostly graze naturally in 14 large “camps” spread out over the 8 000ha property.

However, because of the drought and shortage of natural grazing and browse, Hume has been compelled to provide supplementary feeding spots to ensure his animals don’t starve.

There is also a special nursery facility where rhino calves are hand-reared if their mothers die or run out of milk.

One of his managers, who guided a party of journalists around the ranch, estimated that Hume was currently providing 16 tons a day of supplementary feed (lucerne, teff, barley and other food) to the herds.

He also showed us a large temperature-controlled “hothouse” where seedlings are grown under artificial light to rapidly produce fresh green shoots that are mixed up with other feed and then carted off to the rhino camps by tractor.

We also visited his security command post, “Afghanistan”, which houses the anti-poaching reaction staff, a patrol helicopter, aerial surveillance drones and tracker dogs.

The helicopter hangar is right next to the security manager’s compound, so that reaction units can get airborne night and day if horn poachers decide to strike.

Hume estimates that he spends well over R2 million a month on security costs alone, excluding the cost of veterinary expenses, vehicles, food mixes and salary costs.

We also saw two white rhinos being dehorned swiftly by a veterinarian and capture team.

Each horn is weighed carefully after removal, and stored away along with tiny pieces of remnant horn shavings.

The animals were dehorned on a regular basis, said Hume, partly for security reasons and also to add to the rapidly expanding stockpile of horns that he had not been allowed to sell since early 2009 when the government declared a moratorium on the domestic sale of rhino horns.

Though the sale of rhino horns across international borders was banned for 39 years under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), local rhino owners were allowed to sell horns on the domestic market until the moratorium was declared seven years ago.

While Hume describes himself as a man who “breeds and protects” rhinos, he also stands to make vast sums of money if he can persuade the government to lift the domestic moratorium on horn sales, and also persuade Cites to lift the international ban on horn sales.

Hume personally owns a stockpile of more than five tons of rhino horns and reckons he can produce another ton of horns every year from “harvesting” horns from his personal herd.

Last year he won a court case against the national Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, with the high court ordering that the moratorium was illegal because Hume and other rhino owners were not consulted properly.

He also won the case when it went on appeal in the Supreme Court of Appeal, but the moratorium remains in place pending a further appeal by the minister in the Constitutional Court.

Hume says he is optimistic that the ConCourt will rule in his favour within the next few weeks, opening the door for him to start selling horns domestically.

Opposing the lifting of the moratorium, Molewa said in court papers that the main demand for rhino horn was international and that horns sold in this country were sold clandestinely and exported illegally to China, Vietnam and other Eastern nations.

Molewa also argued that Hume’s application to lift the moratorium was based primarily on “a parochial desire to legalise the sale of rhino horn” so he could “maximise profits”.

She also voiced fears that lifting the moratorium immediately could lead to a backlash from Cites and also jeopardise future South African options to press Cites to lift the international ban.

Lifting the moratorium at this stage was also likely to create a “real risk that illegally obtained rhino horn (poached or stolen) will be laundered into legal stockpiles and passed off as legitimate”.

Hume, for his part, would like to see both the domestic and Cites bans lifted immediately.

Asked whether he was concerned that lifting the domestic ban would result in horns flowing illegally to the East, he said:

“No, I’m not worried if some of the horns end up in Vietnam. If we dumped five tons a year the poaching would go down.

“So many people who profess to love rhinos want to do exactly what will make rhinos extinct ... If I don’t get permission to sell within two years it will be the death knell of this breeding project. We have given the poachers a monopoly. So forgive me if I get a bit emotional at times with the animal rightists.

“I breed and protect rhinos and this project could be copied by almost anyone. This is the way to save them from extinction. I trim their horn in such a way that it can regrow again.”

He also bristles at suggestions that his rhino ranch is little more than a semi-industrial cattle farm, or that commercial rhino farming could devalue the status of wild rhino as a Big Five tourism attraction.

“People have been riding elephants for centuries, so what is the big story?” he responds.

“I guarantee that the poachers would have a hard time competing with us (if a legal rhino trade was allowed),” he says, arguing that government and privately held stocks in South Africa would take the wind out of the sails of criminal rhino horn syndicates.

“As demand increases the price goes up - so if demand goes through the roof that is an upside. How can that be a downside? If demand disappears completely no one will want to poach. If we had given away 6 000 rhinos to local communities a few years ago (to farm for their horns) there would be no poaching today.”

The Mercury