Conservationist appeals for funds … As coffers run dry after spending US$100m in life savings to save the rhino

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By Emmanuel Koro in Johannesburg 

At 76 years old, most people focus on enjoying their lifetime earnings and taking a rest from any challenging work. Not so for South Africa-based John Hume, the tireless and fearless world’s biggest rhino breeder.

He has spent US$100 million on white rhino breeding and protection over the past 26 years. Now his rhino conservation funds have run dry but he has not lost hope of saving more than 1,600 white rhinos on his ranch. Three hundred of them were already pregnant, pointing to a further increase in the population and, of course, the cost of protecting them. 

Without money, he risks losing the rhinos to the merciless poachers. He can no longer afford to pay the US$458,000 monthly bills for the rhino anti-poaching personnel. The only cheaper option to save his rhinos lies in replacing the security services providing his costly close to 100 anti-poaching personnel with an innovative state-of-the-art anti-poaching early-warning satellite security system that costs US$3 million by the end of July 2018. Time is not on his side, neither is it on the side of the vulnerable rhinos. 

Therefore, Hume has decided not to keep silent about his rhino conservation crisis. He knows the world does not want to see such a viable rhino population killed by poachers. Accordingly, he has made a passionate public appeal to all rhino lovers worldwide, to donate whatever they can afford to help save the population that is set to grow much bigger, as 300 of them are pregnant. 

Hume’s niece, Lael Heasman, says the exhaustion of his funds to protect the rhino population at his Buffalo Dream Ranch (BDR) is the saddest news ever received by his relatives, friends and environmental conservationists worldwide. Therefore, they cannot watch idly as the real danger of having the rhinos mercilessly gunned down by poachers approaches fast. 

Accordingly, Heasman is actively helping her uncle with a worldwide BDR rhino anti-poaching campaign dubbed IndieGogo, asking for donations from US$10 upwards to raise money to buy a cost-cutting satellite security system valued at US$3 million by the end of July 2018. The fundraising campaign is being run online.

In her emotional reflection on how her uncle has spent virtually all the money he has earned during his 76 years on planet earth to save a species that most well-meaning conservationists worldwide hate to lose, Heasman said, “If something doesn’t give soon, and BDR’s security walk-off site, these rhinos will be at the mercy of criminal syndicates, and I can only see a bloodbath ahead. So go to IndieGogo and back our campaign to at least replace manned security with an electronic solution, and reduce BDR running costs. 

It is now or never for the BDR rhino conservation. When he had the money, Hume had great hope to protect white rhino and without it, he still has great hope that the rhino lovers worldwide will help him buy the satellite security system to save them. Driven by that hope of worldwide support, Hume has already ordered the satellite security system but has no funds to pay for it, come July 2018 when the payment has to be made. 

“In order to save the rhino, we need to breed better and protect better,” said, Hume, who owns close to one-tenth of South Africa’s total rhino population, with 300 of them currently pregnant, therefore, making it 1,923 lives of rhino in total.

Hume only lost 51 rhinos to poachers since he started rhino breeding about three decades ago, while South Africa is losing three daily and 1,095 annually to poachers. What this shows is that Hume’s rhino breeding approach, if shared ‑ as he wants to do with Southern African rural communities - would go a long way towards saving this iconic species.  Many people in the world hate to ‘kiss’ goodbye to the iconic rhino species because they mean many things to them.

But just what do Hume and other conservationists worldwide think is the sustainable rhino protection solution at BDR?  For Hume and conservationists worldwide, the long-term solution to rhino conservation lies not in donor aid or handouts but strictly controlled sustainable international trade in rhino horn. They collectively noted that the danger of depending on aid to save the rhino is that when donor fatigue kicks in unexpectedly, so will the rhino conservation crisis and their needless loss and extinction. 

“The UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) rhino horn trade ban has been disastrous for African rhinos,” said Hume. “We have experimented and proved the harmful results of these bans. If we continue with the ban, it will be devastating for our rhinos. As Einstein once said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Asked who or what is preventing him from trading his stockpiled rhino horn and live rhinos online and on other platforms, Hume said, “Only my government is stopping me from trading.”

Meanwhile, the chairman of South Africa Private Rhino Owners, Pelham Jones said the South African legislation provides for private ownership of game and the ability to sell excess animals, legally hunt or benefit from the sustainable use of these animals. 

“The most fundamental right of ownership is to be able to trade for financial gain as one would with domestic stock,” said Jones. “Sadly, the past domestic moratorium and the current ban has negatively impacted on both private owners such as Hume but also denied participation from rural communities in wealth creation through direct and indirect benefits that come with trade.”

Surprisingly and sadly, the man, who literally owns close to one-tenth of South Africa’s total rhino population and has made a massive rhino conservation contribution, said not a single government in the world, including that of South Africa as well CITES or any notable conservation organisation has ever sent him a congratulatory letter for a job well done.  The World Guinness Book of Records has yet to recognise Hume as the biggest rhino breeder in the world. Hume has single-handedly and impressively bred a rhino population bigger than that of Kenya.

Fortunately for Hume, this week other conservationists sent their messages of appreciation for his rhino conservation achievements. 

“The tragedy of the anti-trade conservation debate has deflected international recognition away from the enormous conservation achievement by Hume,” said Jones. “There is no person living or dead who has in a personal capacity achieved what Hume has with their own personal funds. Hume deserves the highest international recognition for his conservation achievements and must be supported in every way possible to protect this key population.”

Dr John Hanks, a holder of a Cambridge University PhD in Zoology with 45 years’ experience in applied conservation management and former Director of the Africa Programme for the World Wide Fund For Nature, based in Switzerland said Hume has been remarkably successful and has lost just 51 rhinos to poachers since he started 26 years ago, compared with 4,472 rhinos poached in the whole of South Africa in the four years including 2017.

He said Hume “still has an option to engage in sustainable and strictly controlled trade in rhino horn” and use the money for the long-term security of the species. 

“We, unfortunately, are not going to resolve the trade issue in time, said Heasman. 

“Right now, John needs urgent funding to the tune of US$458,000 per month to keep his current operation going (assuming no new births), and a further US$208,000 per month to continue range expansion to accommodate his growing herd (300 births in the next 18 months).  We know this money is available out there because it is reported in the financials of huge NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and charity organisations, who trade on the plight of rhinos. They need to direct this funding towards BDR, and quickly.”   

Very few people might be aware that Hume’s goodwill goes beyond saving a dying rhino population on his ranch and worldwide. He also wants to alleviate rural poverty in Southern Africa. He has already donated a piece of land on his ranch to build a Southern African Rural Community White Rhino Breeding Training Centre. 

He has been working towards the implementation of this programme for the past two years, together with a South Africa-based environmental NGO, The True Green Alliance. There is no doubt that by bringing different rural communities from different Southern African countries on his rhino breeding ranch, to train on how to breed rhinos – Hume risks having many people know where and how he keeps his rhinos. But it is a risk that he is willing to take; as long as he has the cost-cutting and very effective satellite anti-poaching early warning system in place to protect the rhinos. 

* Emmanuel Koro is a Johannesburg-based international award-winning environmental journalist who has written extensively on environment and development issues in Africa

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