The rhino is targeted by a posse of pickups. The lead vehicle accelerates across the grassland, the driver slews to a halt and, standing in the back, I watch as a silver gun barrel pokes through the open window on the passenger side. The rhino, in a group of three, takes a shot to the hindquarters. She swerves and staggers then runs for her life. While we wait for her to drop, the woman who pulled the trigger jumps out of the Land Cruiser and lights up a cigarette.
As with so much of the debate surrounding wildlife conservation, this scenario is not all it might seem. The rhino has been hit not by a bullet but by a syringe containing anaesthetic, which empties itself on impact. It was fired by Michelle Otto, who, drawing on her cigarette, describes herself as ‘the crazy vet who’s tired’ (she’s been out since early morning without a break, and it’s now early afternoon).
Six minutes later, and half a mile from where she was darted, the rhino starts to feel the effects of the anaesthetic. As we catch up with her in the pickup she paddles her feet as if she were treading water and starts to keel over. What follows goes to the very heart of what is currently one of the most hotly contested issues in African wildlife conservation.
The rhino’s hornswill be removed with an electric reciprocating saw (a painless operation when conducted professionally as the horns, like fingernails, are made of keratin and will grow back) on the orders of a man who wishes to sell rhino horns on the open market and already has a stockpile of six tons, with a potential sale value of tens of millions of pounds.
Credit: DAVID CHANCELLOR
That man is 75-year-old John Hume, who owns the 20,000-acre Buffalo Dream Ranch, several hours’ drive south-west of Johannesburg in South Africa’s North West Province. The ranch is often referred to as ‘the world’s largest rhino farm’ because Hume, a businessman who made his fortune in timeshare resorts, keeps nearly 1,500 (mostly white) rhinos here, harvesting each animal’s horns every two years.
His aim is to breed 200 rhinos a year and he insists his motive is not profit but the preservation of a species. ‘I believe I have the recipe here to save the rhino from extinction; I’m convinced of it,’ he says. Many conservationists vehemently disagree. Hume’s story is one of the principal strands of a new documentary film, entitled Trophy.
The work of the US-based film-makers Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, it explores the tensions around hunting, poaching and conservation in Africa with some exceptional access to, and footage of, big-game hunts and the multimillion-dollar industry in America that underpins them (the film contains some shocking scenes and, needless to say, the species that emerges from it with the least dignity is the human).
Hume has seen Trophy and likes it. ‘It did what Shaul and Christina said they would do; it made people think,’ he tells me when I visit his ranch to discuss the documentary and the issues arising from it. The film captures the moment when Hume contemplates the mutilated corpse of a poached rhino as her calf circles, squealing in distress (‘F— me, it never stops, does it?’ he says).
He has now lost 32 rhinos to poaching at Buffalo Dream Ranch. His response has been twofold: to dehorn the animals so they have no intrinsic value to poachers; and to fight to overturn a moratorium on the domestic trade in rhino horns so he can sell his harvested horns to finance the animals’ ongoing protection.
He puts his monthly security bill at five million rand (about £270,000) and says if he isn’t able to sell the horn his money will run out and the rhinos will be left unprotected. There are 26,000 wild rhinos left in Africa, the majority of them white and 5,000 of them black (the latter are listed as critically endangered).
In 2007, 13 rhinos were poached in South Africa. By 2014 the figure had risen to 1,215 (most of them in Kruger National Park). The poached horn is trafficked by crime syndicates to the Far East – Vietnam and China in particular – where it is highly prized, both as a prestige trophy on a mantelpiece and for its reputed ‘medicinal’ properties. By the time it completes its journey the horn is said to be worth more by weight than gold or heroin.
There has been an international ban on the trade since 1977 but it was legal to trade within the borders of South Africa until 2009. Hume claims there is a direct correlation between the timing of the domestic ban and the increase in rhino poaching, which peaked in the country in 2014.
‘The moratorium flared it up, cut all the horn from going to Vietnam,’ he says. ‘So what did they [the Vietnamese] do? They went to Mozambique, did a deal with the poor people of Mozambique to kill our rhinos, and our poaching rocketed from nothing to over a thousand a year.’
His contention is that lifting the ban will alleviate the poaching threat – while freeing up his stockpiled assets to fund further rhino protection. Mainstream conservationists, to whom he refers as ‘animal rightists’, don’t buy it.
The CEO of Save the Rhino, Cathy Dean, says it’s ‘completely incorrect’ to link the imposition of the moratorium and the explosive increase in poaching. ‘He’s drawing conclusions from one thing and it’s not exactly cause and effect,’ she says. ‘If you look at the poaching stats, it began in 2007/8 in Zimbabwe, long before the moratorium came into effect. I don’t believe the two are related.’
Furthermore, say critics, reopening the domestic trade in rhino simply creates a conduit to the international criminal syndicates. ‘It’s a big charade,’ says Charlie Mayhew, the chief executive of the UK-based Tusk Trust, which supports wildlife conservation projects across Africa.
‘No doubt people who have bought the horn have every intention of shipping it out of the country to the Far East, which is against international law. No one else is going to buy it. The borders are porous as hell, they can smuggle it out.’
Trophy follows Hume’s legal challenge to the South African government to have the ban overturned. In April of this year, with the film already in the can, he got his wish, and in August he held his first rhino-horn auction, which took place online (another is scheduled for around the time this article is published).
‘I don’t want to talk too much about that because we’ve said we’ll keep it confidential, but it was very disappointing,’ he says of the first auction. The auction’s website has buttons to convert to Mandarin or Vietnamese text – which makes it user-friendly for potential traders in the East.
‘I wouldn’t mind making it easy [for them],’ he says, before adding that his interest is in selling to Chinese and Vietnamese people living in South Africa – there are 300-400,000 ethnic Chinese people in the country and small numbers of Vietnamese – even though he also acknowledges that there is little domestic demand. (He blames this on the authorities: ‘The problem is, they’re scared of our government. It will use any ruse to prosecute them or me.’) What happens to the purchased horn is not his concern or responsibility, however.
‘Just like your diamonds, your booze, your cigarettes, everything in the world may find its way into a criminal’s hands,’ he says. On another occasion he tells me, ‘Having taken the horn off why not sell it? The more horns you can sell to Vietnam, the more rhinos in Kruger National Park you will save.’
In parallel to John Hume’s story, Trophy follows a ‘sport hunter’ from Texas, Philip Glass, as he pursues his dream of shooting Africa’s ‘big five’ (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino) and bringing back trophies of those kills in the form of tusks, horns, pelts and so on. For the non-hunter, a degree of cognitive dissonance is helpful in approaching the subject of sport hunting – especially when watching the film’s most disturbing scene, in which Glass shoots an elephant.
‘Early on I tried to understand the psyche of an individual who would take joy in killing something like that,’ Shaul Schwarz tells me on the phone from New York. ‘Then I stopped trying to understand. I said, “Who cares? Maybe he’s a psychopath, maybe he’s crazy, it doesn’t matter. Does it [trophy hunting] provide a tool for conservation, yes or no?”’
As the film follows its makers’ journey, it pushes the viewer gently towards the answer yes. Sport hunting, in which rich (mostly American) men in khaki pony up $50,000 (£38,000) for a single elephant and as much as $350,000 for a rhino, may have as its goal the killing of magnificent creatures, but when regulated properly, it has the secondary effects of maintaining habitat, funding anti-poaching efforts, supporting communities and keeping game breeders in business.
‘It’s a real dilemma that the conservation world probably has to face up to,’ says Charlie Mayhew of Tusk Trust. ‘I say that as someone who wouldn’t want to go out and hunt, but it’s not a black and white issue.’
During the making of Trophy a dentist from Minnesota called Walter Palmer became just about the most hated figure on the planet when he killed a lion called Cecil in Zimbabwe. The furore scared some hunters off appearing in Trophy, but Philip Glass was happy to proceed.
‘I’ve never been a person who’s afraid of telling my story, and that’s what I hope to do in the film, to tell my story and show the heart of the hunter,’ he says on the phone from his ranch in Texas. Since the documentary came out in America, in September, he’s had ‘three or four fairly serious death threats’ on social media and some ‘angry emails’ – all, he says, from people who haven’t actually seen it.
‘With Philip, I wanted him to have some sort of epiphany, to look at what he was doing and say, “This is not right, I need to change,”’ says Christina Clusiau. ‘But he has this core of belief that was never going to alter. I think that was interesting to grapple with.’
Credit: DAVID CHANCELLOR/KIOSK
In the film Glass declares that God gave humans ‘dominion over the animals’ so ‘we can do what we choose with them’. To me he asserts that he only wants to ‘hunt animals where they’re wild and they’re doing well, and the numbers are either stable or expanding’.
The film shows him weeping over the ‘perfection’ of a lion he has just killed, having declared that ‘anybody that believes in evolution is a complete fool’.
One of the conclusions that Shaul Schwarz came to in the four-year making of Trophy is that, as in hunting, there is a place in conservation for the ‘commodification’ of wildlife – ‘If it pays it stays,’ in the jargon. This is what John Hume is attempting to do with his rhinos at Buffalo Dream Ranch.
His critics believe that the continued existence of such primeval creatures should not be dependent upon them being able to pay their way like cattle. ‘They’re not cows! That’s what I object to really,’ says Mayhew.
Hume, who was a businessman before he was a rhino breeder, believes that he is simply going with the grain in an increasingly monetised world, and that rural communities should be ‘empowered’ to follow his example.
As for the ranch itself, it is certainly surprising to see rhinos in such numbers, and when they gather at the ‘feeding grounds’ they do achieve the density of domesticated cattle. But there is plenty of land in which to disperse and it’s hardly the ‘rhino monoculture’ that people assume – Hume also raises buffalo, giraffes, zebras and various antelopes.
On the 16 dehorning operations I witness (conducted professionally and humanely so far as I can tell), it is notable how relaxed the other rhinos seem in proximity to vehicles and people – not to mention the 15-minute dehorning process. But the vet, Michelle Otto, explains they are merely habituated to these vehicles, and the distinctive blue colour of the staff uniforms. ‘You can’t walk up to any of these rhino and touch them, I promise you,’ she says. ‘Their natural instincts are still there.’
Hume is also in the dock over the end usage of trafficked rhino horn. It may be prized in the East for its medicinal properties but it has none, which means the global criminal operation that threatens to slaughter a species is based on a myth. By doing what he is doing, Hume is ‘perpetuating’ that myth, Mayhew believes – not just fuelling an illicit trade but, for example, giving a cancer sufferer false hope.
‘I just don’t think that is morally or ethically right,’ Mayhew says. Hume is typically combative on this point: ‘For Pete’s sake, that is just stupid. Rhino horn is probably used less than one per cent for medicinal purposes.’
(Susie Offord-Woolley of Save the Rhino dismisses this figure. ‘I’d love to know where he’s got it from,’ she says. ‘There’s definitely no conclusive body of evidence that I have seen or my colleagues are aware of that says anything along those lines… Though rhino horn has very much been a status symbol it is still used for medicinal purposes.’) Instead Hume likens its allure to that of diamonds.
‘When you show a Western woman a diamond and her eyes sparkle, that’s exactly what you get in the East when you show them a rhino horn,’ he says. ‘We think it’s stupid – it is stupid, the same as diamonds. It’s a fad, they’ve had it for hundreds and hundreds of years, and they’re not going to listen to us overnight.’
During dinner in Hume’s unshowy brick ranch house he pulls from the bookshelves a copy of A Treatise of Human Nature by his ancestor, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. His intention is to demonstrate his distinguished lineage but the connection is ironic.
David Hume argued that ‘reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions’. John Hume argues that ‘conservation needs practical thinking, not emotionalism’. Yet he is also a passionate man who, in Trophy, refers to his rhinos as ‘my darlings’ and says he’s for ‘the underdog’.
To me he admits that ‘unfortunately I’m a bit of a “greenie” so far as my rhinos are concerned’. Even his critics acknowledge his sincerity. ‘I have no doubt that he is genuinely passionate about the animal and there’s also no doubt he’s invested a lot of money into creating whatever he’s got down there,’ says Mayhew.
Nevertheless, Hume’s project has attracted opprobrium from many sides, much of it ill-informed (he is, for example, routinely misrepresented as ‘the man who farms rhinos for their horns’ rather than ‘the man who farms rhinos to save them from extinction’).
This has bred in him a pugnacious defiance. Projecting himself as a lone voice of sanity in the blood-soaked African wilderness, he believes the ‘war’ on poaching is analogous to the ‘war’ on drugs, and as neither is working it’s time to challenge the groupthink.
‘I’m lost, I’m telling you,’ he says, rattling the ice cubes in his tumbler of J&B. ‘The poor rhino. The world is determined to wipe them off the face of the earth and sometimes it feels as if I’m the only one fighting for them.’