The Horn Collectors

The Horn Collectors – a Story of Excess and Unnatural practices

John Hume, South Africa’s largest rhino farmer and pro-trade protagonist

In 1992, a man by the name of John Hume bought a farm “… and just along with a whole lot of other animals, I bought 5 white rhinos” (i) . Today, he currently has 2 farms, primarily used for the breeding of black and white rhino – he has more than 1,000 and is the largest rhino farmer in South Africa. One “is an intensive game ranch, where rhinos are kept in large camps and the other ranch is an extensive wildlife system, with various other species of game on it too. The latter is a more natural system, like a small reserve and rhinos roam freely on this ranch.”  (ii)

He says his passion and mission in life is to save the rhinos from extinction – he sees himself as both a farmer and conservationist.  Most of my time is spent on trying to save the African rhino from extinction and managing my other businesses which afford me the income required to look after the rhino.”  (ii)

By his own admission he makes no money from farming rhino – “…none and I will not make any without the legalization of rhino horn trade.   I subsidize my ranching from my other businesses in the tourist industry.”  (ii)

So why did Mr. Hume feel the need to buy rhino in 1992? What was his motivation back then? It cannot have been the poaching rate – in 1992 this was only just in double figures – see chart below – and stayed low until 2008:-


So did Mr. Hume have a crystal ball, did he somehow see what was to come 16 years later? Or is he just an astute businessman who took a gamble? Was he the first to “bank on extinction”? As we can see from the poaching statistics, rhinos were not in danger of extinction in 1992 – was he hedging his bets?

In actual fact, John Hume was actively involved in the “domestic” rhino horn trade when it was still legal in South Africa – a moratorium was place on domestic trade in 2000. Hume sold the horns to intermediates who then exported them illegally:

“In some instances, private sector operators have actively created rhino horn stockpiles with a view to future legal trade or use. One such individual, John Hume, reportedly has:

over 500 kg of white rhino horn individually measured and registered with the provincial government, implanted with government-issued micro-chips, similar to the ones inserted in pets, and housed in safety deposit boxes at three banks around the country, awaiting a time when trade would be legal (Borrell, 2010)”. (iv)

Mr. Hume says he likes his animals in general and rhinos in particular. “I developed my passion for rhinos when I started farming with them.” (ii) However, let’s look at what he has said “just along with a whole lot of other animals, I bought 5 white rhinos” (i).  Not much passion there it seems!

What Mr. Hume doesn’t like are Poachers and people with closed minds.” (ii)

John Hume claims: “People with closed minds refuse to acknowledge that conservation is not free and that it needs to pay for itself if it is to be successful. It cannot be left to funding bodies and public donations, as it will fail. We live in a world where we need to accept that conservation will only be successful when people stand to gain from it on socio-economic levels.” (ii)

In short, John Hume has been campaigning, for a long time, for a legal trade in rhino horn, so that he can realise his investment – his rhino. His rhino, the animal he professes to have a passion for, appear to be no more than cash-cows for him.  Hume says “Poachers generally come from the impoverished communities that surround our natural wildlife areas in South Africa. They are usually minimum-wage earners (if they have jobs at all) and are easily drawn in to the lucrative prospect of poaching rhino. They have little or no interest in the welfare of rhinos and will kill them (often brutally and sometimes even leaving them alive to stagger around with half their faces hacked off) for their horn. They are usually paid by a middleman who will then hand the horn over to someone involved in one of the many syndicates that traffic illegal goods to the East.” (ii)

He vents his ire mostly on the poor poacher, but it is the syndicate kingpins,

The men that the South African government (and others) have failed to bring to book. These people are the real problem.

He rightly says “Current laws also make it very difficult to do sell horn legally and without harming or killing the rhino.  If I were to sell you a rhino horn harvested from a live and unharmed rhino we would both go to jail as there is no legal way to change ownership of the rhino horn.  But, within 24 hours, I could get a government permit for you to kill one of my rhinos and take the horn. So we can get the government’s blessing to kill the rhino and take the horn but we’d go to jail if we safely harvested the rhino horn.” (ii) But why not stop the hunting rather than open trade?

So his passion for rhino appears only to be a passion for the rhino HORN, the animal is merely the conduit to enable his investment to be realised.

How is de-horning done, what effect does it have on the rhino and is it an effective deterrent to poaching?

How is de-horning performed?

To de-horn a rhino the animal has to be immobilised. However, the rhino is aware of the noise and the vibrations and wrenching of the chainsaw. The horn is cut off above the quick, which takes approximately 15 minutes.  And on John Hume’s calculations:-

Horn re-grows at approximately 10 cm a year

From a female, he can harvest 1kg a year, from a male 2 kg

Rhinos live to approximately 40 – 45 years

So in the average life time, a female (whilst breeding) would supply approximately 40 kg, a male 60 – 80kg. (i)

What effect does this have on the rhino and is it cruel?

Firstly, the rhino has a horn for a reason, or rather several reasons.  Studies have revealed that a rhino’s horn plays an important role in the mating ritual. The horn is also used as a form of defense; it is used for feeding and digging for water and minerals and as a display of prowess. The female also uses her horn to guide her young, to lift a youngster over difficult ground, to help them feed. All these things are natural behavior for a rhino. And in that respect, I believe de-horning is cruel.

Is de-horning an effective poaching deterrent?

No – plain and simple. The nub or quick is left on the rhino after de-horning. However, this is the heaviest and most desirable part of the horn. Secondly, anecdotal evidence suggests that aficionados of rhino horn prefer freshly-poached, rather than stockpiled horn as it is “more potent”. And, as has been well documented, de-horned rhino are frequently poached, even for the small amount of horn remaining! In fact John Hume has himself lost 12 rhinos to poachers.

Mr. Hume cites the example of the Vicuna to bolster his case for rhino farming. The Vicuna (a wild type of Camelid) live in the high Andes. Unfortunately, due to their very valuable fleece, vicunas were nearly hunted to extinction by the late l970s. Conservation efforts in Peru, Chile and Argentina have led to a phenomenal resurgence in vicuna populations.  Reviving the ancient chacu (a vicuna drive or capture that originated with the Incas) and involving locals, offered the best chance to draw rural communities into the animal’s management and protection.  The locals have a financial incentive to protect vicunas for their valuable fleeces, which are shorn every 3 years.

However, there are several major differences between the rhino and the vicuna. Firstly, one does not need to tranquilize a vicuna to harvest its wool and secondly, the wool harvesting can only be done every 3 years – as opposed to 18 months for de-horning.

And what of the birth rates?

Vicunas mate in March and April, pregnancy lasts approximately 11 months and the mother usually gives birth to 1, sometimes 2 calves. The young will suckle for about 10 months but stay with the mother until it is about 18 months old.

For rhinos, most females can mate once every three or four years, the pregnancy can last up to 18 months and the mother gives birth to a single calf, which will stay attached to the mother for up to three years. Weaning generally occurs after a year, when the calf begins grazing or browsing for itself.

John Hume has clearly done his sums:

“I believe a rhino farmer will average more than 1 kg of rhino horn per year per rhino and the international news media tells us that it is worth as much as gold.  However my information tells me that the poachers are getting between 10,000 and 15,000 US dollars per kilo.   This would still be a very good income as I believe all costs (excluding the cost of the rhino itself) to keep a rhino for 1 year equates to about 5,000 US dollars per year.” (ii)

And as for the poachers “So instead of killing rhino’s they (the ex-poachers, turned rhino farmers) could be raising them and supporting their family by selling the rhino horn.” (ii)

But what of the syndicate kingpins – cut out of the equation altogether by Mr. Hume? Will they be happy to just accept this situation? There will always be a ready supply of poachers, as there will, unfortunately, always be poverty. And it is because of this that legalizing trade in horn will not work.

Now let us look at Mr. Hume’s rhino farms and compare them with the rhino in its natural environment.

Rhino at one of John Hume’s ranches


At John Hume’s farm, the rhino drink from concrete ‘bowls’, receive supplementary feeding of Lucerne and are kept, as seen from the photograph above, in “unnatural conditions” – there appears nowhere to wallow as rhinos like to do, there appears very little shade and virtually no grass.

Rhino in mud wallow at Mfolozi


In April this year, John Hume, experienced a major setback on his farm Elandslaagte because of an outbreak of blackquarter (an acute infectious and highly fatal, bacterial disease) among his 1000 rhinos – the outbreak killed 35 of them.

Scientists, including veterinarians from Onderstepoort, managed to isolate the bacteria and are now trying to develop a vaccine against the disease.

Putting a positive spin on the outbreak, Hume’s spokesperson stated “We consider this as pioneering work.” (iii)

However, “ecologists said they believe the bacteria developed themselves after the heavy rains recently in the Northwest in the grass where the animals are grazing. They said the unnatural conditions under which animals are kept and the large number of rhinos (1000) has made the outbreak possible. They believe the carrying capacity of the farm is exceeded.” (iii)

So is John Hume a conservationist as he says he is or just a businessman, with rhino as a commodity, a cash cow, with his eye on the bottom line, banking on extinction?


Caroline Mason, Margot Stewart & Rian Geldenhuys

Wild & Free South Africa

“Wild & Free South Africa, aimed at keeping South African wildlife Wild, Free and protected from degradation and commercialisation.”


  1. From TedX talk by John Hume Sept 2013
  1. The South Africa – Viet Nam Rhino Horn Trade Nexus: A Deadly combination of institutional lapses, corrupt wildlife industry professions and Asian crime syndicates. By Tom Milliken & Jo Shaw. A Traffic report 2012