By Professor Keith Somerville

Africans Parks, the Johannesburg-based non-profit conservation organisation, announced on 4th September that it was going to buy rhino owner John Hume’s Buffalo Dreams Ranch and its 2,000 southern white rhinos.  The organisation said that it ‘will rewild over 2,000 southern white rhino over the next 10 years’. .  The rhinos make up 13% of the entire global white rhino population – which numbers 15,942.   Could this be the start of a major new chapter in the conservation of Africa’s rhinos and an opportunity for captive-bred rhinos living in high densities on a fenced ranch to be prepared for release into the wild?

In April this year, John Hume held an auction to sell his ranch and rhino having earlier announced that his organisation, Platinum Rhino could no longer afford to conserve, protect and provide supplementary feeding for the nearly 2,000 southern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum simum) he owned. The auction failed to attract any bids and sources close to John Hume told me he was seeking a philanthropic billionaire or conservation organisation to buy the ranch and the rhino.  After more than four months of searching and negotiations, also involving the South African government, African Parks have stepped into the breach.

Hume’s rhinos

Hume, a wealthy former property developer,  started keeping rhino in 1996, when he bought six from the Natal Parks Board (the provincial conservation group which could claim to have saved the southern white rhino from extinction, breeding them  at its Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game reserve  in KwaZulu-Natal and then relocating them across southern Africa and to Kenya). Over the years it is clear he became obsessed with breeding rhino and since 1996 has produced 1,870 rhino calves – selling some to other private owners. At the time of the auction he had 1,960 white rhino but more may have been born since.

The costs were high.  When I met him and took part in two dehornings on his ranch in August 2016, he was already warning that he was running out of money and might only keep going for 2-3 years more.  He had large stocks of rhino horn from dehornings but could not sell it because of the international ban on the trade in rhino horn and a domestic ban within South Africa.  When this was lifted, Hume held an auction in August 2017, but, as his lawyer told the media, ‘The auction yielded fewer bidders and fewer sales than anticipated’ and so did not boost Hume’s funds to protect and feed his rhino – supplementary feeding is necessary, Hume told me, in times of drought and because he has so many rhino at a much higher density than in the wild.

In 2022, Hume announced he would provide 100 rhinos a year for rewilding.   This also failed to get much of a response, as many other private rhino owners were divesting themselves of rhino because of the many years of poaching of rhino in South Africa for their horns, which are valued as prestige goods or said to have medical properties by people in Vietnam, China and other south-east Asian countries.  At its peak rhino horn was fetching $65,000/kg, but this has now fallen to $20-25,000/kg.

Poaching reduces population but this could be a chance for recovery

In the last decade white rhino numbers have dropped dramatically, from a peak of 18,067 down to 15,942, chiefly due to poaching in South Africa – 213 have already been poached in the first six months of 2023.  The costs of keeping rhino have rocketed with no way for private owners to recoup the costs. Hume was paying out £2 million a year for security to prevent poaching, in addition to staff, veterinary and food costs. He simply could not afford to go on.

African Parks have stepped in and will take the ranch and all the rhino off Hume’s hands for an undisclosed sum.  The organisation said that, ‘with the support of the South African Government, as well as having secured emergency funding to make the transaction possible, African Parks agreed to purchase the farm and all 2,000 rhino. African Parks has one clear objective: to rewild these rhino over the next 10 years to well-managed and secure areas’. It will take over the running of the captive rhino breeding operation, which Hume dubbed Platinum Rhino on the 7,800-hectare Buffalo Dreams Ranch in the North West province of South Africa. Dr Mike Knight, chairman of the IUCN African rhino specialist group, told the South African website Daily Maverick on Monday he regarded African Parks as a credible and responsible conservation organisation and was optimistic that the animals could be successfully rewilded.

Who are African Parks?

African Parks is a non-profit conservation organisation established in 2000 and says its aim is to assist in the management of protected areas, to conserve wildlife and help local communities living with wildlife.  It contracts with governments to manage protected areas, often ones that were failing or had become run-down. It manages 22 parks in 12 countries in Africa.  It works in Angola, Benin, Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda, South Sudan Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The organisation has committed itself to introducing species dcpleted by poaching, poor management or human-wildlife conflict and has translocated black and white rhino from reserves like Phinda in KwaZulu-Natal to Malawi, Rwanda, Chad and, most recently the Democratic republic of Congo. Translocation is not always easy. Six black rhinos that were moved from South Africa to Zakouma National Park, in Chad in 2018.  Four died within six months, due to maladaptation by the rhinos to their new environment.  Martin Rickleton of African Parks told me in June this year that that the surviving two, ‘have successfully adapted to their new environment, marking the beginning of a thriving micro-population within the park. Building on this success, we are considering additional rhino relocations to Zakouma.’

African Parks appear to have been successful in moving black rhino to Malawi’s Liwonde and Majete National Parks and both black rhino and southern white rhinos to Akagera in Rwanda. Most recently, they translocated 16 southern white rhino to Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo from private reserves in South Africa. African Parks has managed Garamba since 2005. Garamba was the home to the last wild northern white rhino, one of the twoa sub-species of white rhino (the northern and the southern).

The organisation’s press release on the purchase of Hume’s rhinos and ranch did not specify where they would be rewilded, but it is clear that African Parks have a programme in development and over the ten year span they mention would be preparing the Hume rhinos for acclimatisation and release in some of the national parks it manages – most probably in Central Africa.  With care, as the Malawi, Rwanda and hopefully the Garamba relocations show, captive-bred  rhinos or those kept on small, fenced reserves can be successfully released into larger, wilder protected areas.

This will be expensive, but past relocations have been funded by the organisation’s sponsors/partners, which include the Howard G Buffet Foundation (which was involved with the Garamba relocations), the Acacia Conservation Foundation, the Rob Walton Foundation, and it has at times received funding from the European Union, USAID, the German Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit and the Dutch national lottery. It is not known who provided the emergency funding to buy Hume’s rhinos and the ranch.

This venture is a major one for conservation and one might say, a brave move at a time when the future of 13% of the world’s white rhino owned by Hume was in doubt.  It was welcomed by the South African environment minister Barbara Creecy and by leading members of the IUCN’s African Rhino Specialist Group Dr Mike Knight and Dr Richard Emslie.  Private rhino owners are relieved – Lynne McTavish of the Mankwe Wildlife Reserve, which has white rhino in its care, wrote on Facebook that, ‘This is such good news, the best possible outcome’.  Certainly it has saved the rhino and has ambitious and constructive plans for their future.

Professor Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (University of London), a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent and a fellow of the Zoological Society of London. He has written books on the ivory trade, human-lion, human-hyena and human-jackal coexistence and conflict, and is now writing a book for Pelagic Publishers on the African rhino species.

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