Nearly two years after South Africa’s first legal online rhino horn auction, an anonymous environmental whistle-blowing website has published the first images from it.

These photographs show that some of the horn pieces for the auction by John Hume, the world’s largest private rhino owner, were prepared for Asian buyers, not local collectors, said WildLeaks, an initiative dedicated to exposing wildlife and forest crime.

“WildLeaks recently received a leak containing pictures of rhino horn lots from the first legal rhino horn auction in South Africa. The auction was held by private rhino horn owner Hume in August 2017 and the details - pictures, pricing and number of lots sold - have never been made public.”

South Africa legalised the sale of rhino horn domestically in April 2017, lifting an eight-year moratorium on the domestic trade.

Hume, a rhino breeder who has amassed six tons of horn harvested from his around 1600 rhino, planned to sell 264 pieces weighing a total of 500kg for the online auction.

“The pictures received by WildLeaks show clearly that some of the pieces for sale were very small, just a few grams. These small pieces would not be considered trophies, something possibly desired by South Africans.

“Instead, given that the auction website was translated into both Vietnamese and Chinese, it is much more likely that they were marketed for illegal export to the Asian market.”

Vietnam and China are the primary consumers of rhino horn, with the supply coming largely from significant poaching in southern Africa, said WildLeaks, which is managed by the Elephant Action League.

“Vietnamese and Chinese buyers can legally purchase rhino horn in South Africa, but technically cannot take it out of the country.

“Once bought legally, though, it is unlikely that the South African government would be able to effectively monitor the movement of the rhino horn.

“Like with legal ivory markets in other countries, a local legal market in South Africa only serves to fuel demand in the Asian market.

“Worse, it offers a mechanism to launder illegal horn that has been poached through the legal market, especially small pieces of rhino horn like those found in these screen shots.

“These small pieces of rhino horn were plainly prepared for the Asian traditional medicine market and for illegal export to Asia,” said WildLeaks.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species outlaws the international trade in rhino horn.

The 77-year-old Hume, a former property developer, responded: “These animal rights NGOs cannot get it through their thick skulls that I’m trying to save the lives of my rhino and without very serious financial help from the world, or selling my rhino horn, my rhinos are going to be dead in 10 years time...

“I prepared my horn for anybody who wanted to buy it.

“Let me tell you, we’ve got 1.2million Asians in this country. They can sniff the horn, drink it or put it on their desks just as well as Asians in the East can. To me, I will bless their cotton socks if they buy my horn.

“If they happen to take it in one year or in five years time to China or Vietnam, I couldn’t give a damn.

“I firmly believe that every rhino horn that gets to Vietnam or China is one less ordered from the Kruger National Park.”

The auction was a “miserable failure” because the Department of Environmental Affairs did not issue him with a permit until the “11th hour”, after he took it to court.

“We had 240 enquiries before that auction. We only sold eight horn.

“The two or three weeks before that auction, the government sent a message to would-be buyers that they would make their lives very difficult if they bought horn.

“The government has very effectively killed demand for rhino horn in South Africa.”

Hume, who has claimed he is on the verge of bankruptcy, spends R5million a month running his captive breeding rhino operation in the North West and on protecting his herd.

He recently held another rhino auction, which he described as a miserable failure, too.

“There was not a bid on a female rhino. The only bids were for young male rhino with horn.

“In two, three or four years time when that rhino is eight or nine, a buyer is able to get a legal permit to kill it and take the horn out of South Africa legally nobody wants to breed or buy rhino.

“The world doesn’t want to hear any logical arguments about legal trade and all they’re doing is underscoring the illegal trade.”