The world’s biggest rhino breeder has announced plans to sell part of his massive stockpile of horns in a global online auction, sparking concern that this could undermine the 40- year-old international ban on rhino horn trading.
Billed as the world’s first “legal rhino horn auction”, the three-day sale is scheduled for midday on August 21.
South African businessman and game rancher John Hume, who has nearly 1500 rhinos at his game farm in the North West, has a stockpile of nearly six tons of horns that he wants to sell. This after he won a series of court battles earlier this year to overturn the eight-year-old moratorium on the domestic sale of rhino horns.
Hume – along with other private rhino breeders – has been removing horns from his herd for several years. The animals are anaesthetised and the top section of the horn removed so that they can regrow naturally as part of a “bloodless, horn-harvesting” operation.
In an attempt to halt the unrelenting slaughter of rhinos in Africa and Asia by poaching syndicates, a ban on the international sale of rhino horns came into force in 1977 by member states of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). This was followed by a 2009 ban on the sale of rhino horns within South Africa that coincided with an unprecedented spike in horn poaching.
Now that Hume has overturned the moratorium on domestic sales within South Africa, he plans to sell 500kg of horns in an online auction that will be open to bidders from China, Vietnam and other nations. A condition of sale is that the horns will have to remain in South Africa until global trade is unbanned – or alternatively, until foreign buyers are granted import and export permits from South Africa and their home nations.
Senior officials of the Department of Environmental Affairs and South Africa’s Private Rhino Owners Association (PROA) held a meeting in Pretoria early on Friday to wrangle over the terms of the proposed auction. It it is understood that the department raised a number of concerns over import and export permit procedures yesterday, but Hume told TMG Digital that the auction was going ahead regardless.
“The (auction) dates are fixed” he said on Friday.
In a social media campaign notice, it was announced that the auction would start on August 21, with anonymous bids continuing until noon on August 24.
This was confirmed by the appointed Pretoria-based auction house. Van’s Auctioneers spokesman Johan van Eyk said Hume would offer just over 500 kg of rhino horns for sale. The horns would be split into 250 separate lots, mainly sets of front and back horns and some larger individual front horns.
A second, conventional auction would be held amid tight security in Gauteng on September 19.
Van Eyk said he was not willing to speculate on expected prices, but noted that current domestic black-market prices were considerably lower than end-of-market prices in the Far East.
Jo Shaw, rhino programme manager for the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) in South Africa, has questioned why buyers would want to bid for rhino horn when the international trade remains illegal.
“There is no significant demand for rhino horns inside South Africa and the access to international markets is illegal – so why would buyers want to bid for horns at this auction?”
A spokesman for environmental affairs Minister Edna Molewa did not respond to written queries last night, while the CITES secretariat in Switzerland claimed it was not aware of the proposed auction.
Instead, CITES spokesman Yuan Liu pointed to a statement issued earlier this year after South Africa published draft proposals that would allow foreign nationals to export two rhino horns from South Africa for “personal purposes”.
This statement notes that – with the exception of legal hunting trophies – no rhino horns can be traded internationally “if the use is for primarily commercial purposes”.
“The Secretariat has received questions from CITES parties and journalists, as well as messages of concern from the general public, regarding measures proposed by the Republic of South Africa relating to the domestic trade and the export for personal purposes of rhinoceros horn…The application of relevant CITES provisions to South Africa’s proposal is rather complex.”
But private rhino owners – who now own 37% of South Africa’s increasingly threatened rhino population – are hoping that buyers from London, Tokyo, Beijing, New York and other major centres will still bid for a slice of the massive stockpile of rhino horns that has been building up for forty years in private and state storage facilities in South Africa.
PROA spokesman Pelham Jones described the latest move as the first move of a “two-step dance”.
“Why buy it illegally, when you can buy it legally? There is no intention nor desire to flood the market. After the first horn auctions are held we will be able to see how much interest there is. There is no legal bar to holding an auction,” he argued, noting that rhino owners had studied the relevant legislation very closely.
“We see a lot of nonsense on social media suggesting that this would enable ‘blood horns’ to be laundered and sold off. It’s nonsense because you have to be in possession of a permit in order to sell horns. Poaching will continue unless there is a regulated supply of horn available to meet demand,” he said.