By Nica Richards, The Citizen | June 16, 2020
The recent conviction of two men found to have illegally possessed and transported 181 rhino horn last year has left more questions than answers.
And although any convictions should be celebrated, especially for rhinos, NGO OSCAP (Outraged South African Citizens Against Rhino Poaching) said the conviction renewed their suspicions that controversial rhino breeder John Hume may not be benefiting this threatened species as much as he claimed.
On 13 April 2019, Clive John Melville and Petrus Stephanus Steyn were arrested in the North West by members of the Hawks, Tracker SA and Vision Tactical, after a tip-off was received that their vehicle, travelling from a coastal province, was transporting a significant amount of rhino horn, allegedly destined for South East Asian markets.
Since then, Melville and Steyn entered into a plea agreement with the State, and were sentenced on 5 June. They were convicted of illegally possessing and transporting rhino horn, and Melville was convicted of forgery.
The horns they were caught with belonged to a private buyer from Port Elizabeth, Alan Rossouw, who had purchased them from John Hume.
According to the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (Deff), Steyn was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment or a R25,000 fine, suspended for five years, and Melville was handed a R50,000 fine, or three years behind bars, as well as three years imprisonment suspended for five years, and six months in jail, suspended for three years.
But when Simon Bloch, who had reported on the case since last April, discovered that Melville and Hume were distant relatives, the case took an interesting turn.
When Melville and Steyn were first arrested, it was reported that Hume’s lawyer, Ulrich Roux, argued that because Hume had not yet been paid for the legal rhino horn transaction, they were his property. The horns were instead forfeited to the State.
Roux told The Citizen that his client legally obtained all required permits for Rossouw to collect, transport and be in possession of said horns.
“Our client has no knowledge of the relationship between Mr/s Rossouw, Steyn and Melville,” Roux said.
He added that his client was never regarded as a suspect in the matter, and was never accused. He also assured that Hume has no contact with Melville despite the distant relation.
It was further uncovered by Bloch that the horns were destined for a security vault company based in Johannesburg, and although Hume argued last year that Melville and Steyn were merely acting as agents for the buyer, the horns were not meant to be in their possession.
The reason Melville and Steyn were charged is because they lacked the necessary permits set out by Deff that are required when rhino horn is purchased domestically.
Roux explained that Rossouw was legally in possession of these permits, and should have been the one to transport the horns.
He said that Hume was the lawful owner of the said rhino horns and provided the necessary buying, selling, and transport permits for the horns, as required by the Department of Environmental Affairs.
It is legal to domestically trade rhino horn, but only if both the buyer and seller have the required permits, as set out in the Biodiversity Act. The international commercial trade of rhino horn is prohibited.
In fact, Minister Barbara Creecy recently published tightened provisions for domestic rhino horn trade, which include that horns must be longer than 5cm to be sold, given, donated, bought, received or accepted. Horns must also be marked in accordance with Threatened or Protected Species (TOPS) Regulations and the Rhinoceros Norms and Standards.
Provisions also emphasised the prohibition of powdering rhino horn, unless it is for scientific purposes, DNA samples are collected, or microchips are drilled into the horn.
Who is John Hume
John Hume has bred 1,806 Southern white (and some black) rhinos since acquiring his first one in 1993. He owns the largest number of Southern white rhinos in the world.
When poaching became particularly concerning in the country, Hume registered the first captive breeding facility in South Africa for his rhinos, to boost population numbers. Buffalo Dream Ranch is roughly 8,000 hectares, and all rhinos are dehorned every two years until their death, in an effort to keep rhinos safe from poachers. And according to Save the Rhino, this has also resulted in a massive stockpile of horns, each of which Roux assures has a DNA certificate.
Hume and another rhino owner, Johan Kruger, challenged government’s resistance to allow domestic rhino horn trade in South Africa, and won the case in 2017. He sought to use domestic rhino horn trade to pour money back into his conservation efforts.
When asked if dodgy dealings were inevitable with the legalisation of domestic rhino horn trade, Roux vehemently denied this sentiment.
He said Hume’s passion to return the legal domestic trade of rhino horn, which was legal in the country until it was banned in 2009, was due to him witnessing the brutal slaughter of 51 of his rhinos.
Hume’s push for establishing a market for legally produced rhino horn in 2017 was at a time when South Africa had lost over 8,000 rhinos to poaching in just nine years, Roux said.
“The ‘dodgy dealings’ in poached rhino horn has shadowed our country because legal trade in legally produced rhino horn was banned.
“Our client is of the opinion that ‘dodgy dealing’ will be more difficult in a tightly regulated, legal trading environment, and there will be far smaller rewards for unscrupulous elements in engaging in ‘dodgy dealings,” Roux explained.
He said Hume is now doing his utmost to legalise the international trade of rhino horn, “as he is convinced that this will contribute towards the conservation and sustainability of the rhino population worldwide.”
Just one year after the court case win, Hume said he wished to find a partner to purchase up to 50% of his breeding project, citing that it is impossible to sell rhino horn in South Africa, and therefore that he was bankrupt. He appealed to the public in 2019 for monetary support, to help pay for the protection of his rhinos.
Trade a solution too good to be true?
Hume’s beliefs that legalising the trade of rhino horn would stop the poaching crisis the world’s rhinos currently find themselves in, and meet the high demands of rhino horn from Asia, have come under fire by various activists, NGOs and conservationists.
This despite Roux and Hume standing firm on the view that the legal trade in rhino horn “contributes to the conservation of rhinos in South Africa, and globally.”
Skeptics believe Hume wants to make a profit from selling off his stockpiles, and that the safety of his rhinos is not the priority. They worry that his domestic rhino trade win could snowball into the complete legalisation of international rhino horn trade.
One such skeptical organisation is OSCAP, whose spokesperson Kim Da Riberia said they are vehemently opposed to the domestic trade of rhino horn, and believe it would not benefit rhino populations, especially not wild rhinos.
She said Hume, and others that support the trade of rhino horn, are not to be trusted when they claim their efforts are in the name of conservation, and added that Asia’s insatiable demand for rhino horn would not be easily satisfied.
She said the scope of the illegal wildlife trade is massive, and that the demand for rhino horn, as well as the prices, only increase when populations decline, lamenting that meeting their demand would see the decimation of rhino populations.
Da Riberia also pointed out inconsistencies when rhino horns are seized, explaining that when compared to recorded rhino populations, with relatively slow reproductive rates, there are simply too many rhino horns circulating in Africa and Asia to trace back to live populations. This essentially means if every rhino horn seized came from an animal that was poached, there would be no more, or very little rhinos left in the wild. And it alludes to the possibility that seized rhino horn could originate, at least in part, from stockpiles.
“But this is hard to follow up on, and there is not enough communication with regards to investigations and follow-ups, and not enough information or databases, even when regulations are published.”
Da Ribeira pointed out that just after the domestic trade ban on rhino horns was lifted in 2017, there was a spate of overseas seizures of apparent harvested rhino horn.
“I’m not a big fan of Hume … But if it’s not his horns ending up in overseas seizures, then it’s someone else’s that is involved in rhino farming in South Africa. He is not your ordinary rhino owner.”
Da Ribeira said Hume and rhino owners pushing for trade should rather be honest about the fact that they found a way to make money – even though Hume has claimed bankruptcy.
The domestic breeding of a wild animal remains a contentious issue, even if it is in the name of conservation.
Not only has the plight of poaching robbed the rhinoceros, and countless other animals, of living a normal life, but they now face a future where they are prevented from running wild. And the insatiable thirst for their horns, in the name of medicine, may not be quenched until they all disappear.
The main question asked by conservation bodies is that Hume’s preservation of rhinos may well save their species – but at what cost?