Picture: 123RF/Sergey Nivens
Picture: 123RF/Sergey Nivens

In a first for megafauna, half of SA’s white rhino population is now privately owned. And, given the precarious outlook for the animals elsewhere, it is conceivable that most rhinos worldwide will soon be in private hands. However, some private owners say they may not be able to sustain the costs of maintaining their herds if the global ban on the horn trade remains in place.

The state of affairs has been reached after more than a decade of relentless poaching on one hand, and intense breeding efforts by private ranchers on the other.

A recent survey conducted for the Private Rhino Owners Association (PROA) found that at the end of 2017, almost 7,000 white rhinos, 46% of an estimated 15,200 national herd in SA, were in private hands. SA’s privately owned white rhino population, plus a few hundred black rhinos on private land, is more than double the population of the three Asian species.

Meanwhile, populations in government parks have been in decline. In 2010, the number of white rhinos in SA was estimated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature to be at 18,800, with more than 14,000 roaming state land and 4,000 on private farms. The state number has since almost halved, while the private figure has almost doubled.

The bulk of the decline has been in the Kruger National Park, where the white rhino population fell from about 9,000 in 2013 to 5,000 in 2017. The official line is that drought has been the main factor, but poaching for horns to meet demand in Asian economies such as Vietnam has clearly had an effect.

Data released by the department of environmental affairs in mid-February shows that the number of rhinos poached fell more than 16%, to 769 in 2018. According to PROA, about 150 of its members’ rhinos were killed last year, less than 20% of the total.

The data also suggests that poaching losses in state reserves have remained steady as a percentage of the population, even if the absolute numbers have dropped. In 2014, a record 1,215 rhinos were poached in SA — 827 of them in Kruger. That was just under 10% of the estimated Kruger population that year of about 8,600. Last year 504 rhinos were slain in Kruger — just more than 10%. By contrast, private owners lost only 2% of their animals to poachers in 2018.

This has come at a cost. The PROA survey found security costs per rhino per year surged from R6,000 in 2014 to R28,000 in 2017.

This faunal "privatisation" — enshrined in SA by the 1991 Game Theft Act — raises a number of issues, not least the way in which the global trade is regulated. Among commodity asset classes — oil and gas, minerals and agricultural products — the global trade in wild flora and fauna is the only one directly regulated by the UN, through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna & Flora (Cites). Governments call the shots, through consensus at Cites meetings, about matters such as the international trade in ivory and horn. But in the case of rhinos, many are — and perhaps soon most will be — privately owned.

"At Cites, we have to speak through the government. And we don’t really have a voice at that table," PROA chair Pelham Jones tells the FM.

Security costs per rhino per year surged from R6,000 in 2014 to R28,000 in 2017

This is a recipe for friction, not least because many private owners want to harvest horn — an expensive process that requires darting and dehorning — to sell on global markets to recoup their investment and cover escalating security costs.

"There is an inherent tension: is it a public good or a private commodity?" says David Balfour, chair of the Southern African Development Community’s Rhino Management Group.

The threat of losing animals to poaching has driven many smaller owners out of the game, leading to consolidation. Jones says the number of private properties with rhinos has fallen from 430 in 2010 to 300 currently, meaning the average number of rhinos per farm has risen from nine to 23.

But size has its limits. Take John Hume, owner of the world’s largest private population. He has about 1,600 of the animals on his ranch in the North West — more than 10% of SA’s white rhinos.

Hume, who dehorns his animals and has a 5t stockpile, says costs are spiralling — notably for feed supplements, as his ranch has not fully recovered from the last El Niño-triggered drought.

"The fact is, my project will fall to pieces in months … and I [will have to] sell my rhinos for peanuts," he says. Unless he is allowed to start selling his horns on the international market, that is — something that would require CITES to pull the plug on prohibition.

Hume is now looking for investors.

"Over the past 26 years I have personally funded this project to the tune of $150m of my personal wealth, and I have now unfortunately run out of the financial wherewithal to continue," he says in an e-mail to prospective funders.

He has also started selling off his herd. Eswatini has purchased his 16 black rhinos, but an attempted auction of 70 white rhinos in March was a bust.

Hume says there was "no demand for females" and demand for males was "limited".

Rhino prices have been pressured by the spiralling costs and risks associated with their ownership, a case of an asset becoming a liability.

According to PROA, the prices of rhinos at auction have halved since their 2016 peak, when the average price for pregnant white rhino cows was R535,000 and R112,500 for young bulls.

Hume has sold an undisclosed number of horns since the Constitutional Court lifted the ban on the domestic trade (which is outside CITES jurisdiction). Sources say the average price is about R55,000 per kg, so his stockpile could fetch $275m.

Private owners in SA have about 10t stored away, while the government is estimated by PROA to have 20t. The entire national stockpile could be worth $1.6bn.

The arguments against reopening the global trade are well known and not without their merits, not least of which is science.

Rhino horn, made up of keratin — the stuff found in your nails — has none of the medicinal uses it is credited for, such as curing hangovers or cancer.

Opponents of the trade also point to the potential that legalisation of the trade could have for the laundering of illicit supplies.

The main counter-argument is that it is better to meet demand (even if the consumers are delusional, or looking for bling) with supplies from live rather than dead animals, and to provide income to legitimate businesses, which pay taxes and add to GDP.

Another emerging pro-trade argument is that private rhino ownership is nearing a tipping point: after a sustained period of growth, private populations may be set for decline.

Private rhinos are clearly more secure, which is why their populations have been growing. Hume has not lost a rhino to poaching in almost two years, though he recently lost three to Eskom (a pylon on his property collapsed, electrocuting the animals).

Hume and other private owners have one little-known card up their sleeves: if Hume’s population of rhinos is classified as "captive bred", the animals’ Cites classification will be moved to appendix 1 from appendix 2, which will allow for horn trade across borders.

Hume has submitted an application to the government requesting this reclassification ahead of the next big Cites meeting in Sri Lanka in May. The department of environmental affairs says it will not comment until a decision is made.

What it means

Some private owners say the global ban on rhino-horn trade needs to be reversed if they are to carry their spiralling costs

A captive-bred classification raises concerns of its own.

Some critics take issue with the "downgrading" of a charismatic wild animal into livestock — a "dewilding", if you will.

But there are precedents: crocodile farming, for example, is a huge industry. And rhinos are unlikely to be truly domesticated. It has been thousands of years since humanity domesticated a new species, and no African mammal has ever been domesticated.

Private populations, even in a "dewilded" state, could also be used in future rewilding initiatives — the relocation of rhinos across former ranges, hopefully at a time when the poaching threat has been eradicated. Even Hume’s managed rhinos, which have regular exposure to humans through darting and feeding, could be placed in a more "natural" or wild setting.

"Very few experts are concerned at the moment with the prospects of rewilding Hume’s animals," says Balfour. This correspondent’s experience with them is that they seem relatively docile — but, then, white rhinos are the least ornery of the Big Five.

It is surely crucial to build up rhino numbers by any means possible, with an eye to re-establishing them more widely in the wild.

The irony is that SA’s rhino populations are the products of earlier efforts that laid the groundwork for what is now called "rewilding", such as Ian Player’s initiative in the 1960s to repopulate the Kruger with rhinos from Umfolozi. So future rewilding projects may have to rely on private rhino populations, which would be fitting, given their history. But that will hinge on the private populations sustaining their growth.