Mr. Hume, a 73-year-old retired developer of timeshare resorts, spends more than $200,000 a month protecting his rhinos with a veritable private army, some of whom buzz over his 16,000-acre spread near Klerksdorp, South Africa, by helicopter. Still, he has lost 13 rhinos to poachers this year—leaving him with 1,161 of the lumbering, endangered beasts.
Mr. Hume thinks that his herd would be safer if trade in the rhinos’ coveted horns was legalized. He is lobbying to overturn bans that have been in place locally since 2009 and internationally since 1977.
It is a controversial idea—and an urgent one. Nearly 4,000 rhinos have been slaughtered in the past eight years as demand has surged for their horns, particularly in Asia, where it is powdered for use in potions and medicines and often purchased as a status symbol.
The global rhino population has dwindled from 500,000 at the beginning of the 20th century to about 29,000 today. The surging trade in illicit horn has cut the population of the three remaining Asian species to just a few thousand, including about 40 Javan and less than 100 Sumatran rhinos. Just about 20,000 Southern White Rhinos and 5,000 black rhinos, which include three subspecies in Africa, survive. Four-fifths of the world’s remaining rhinos live in South Africa, and 4% of the global population are on Mr. Hume’s ranch.
Black-market rhino horn can fetch as much as $100,000 a kilogram in Vietnam and other Asian countries, where it is peddled as a cure for ailments ranging from headaches to cancer. Many conservationists say that a legal marketplace would only raise demand. They argue instead for publicity campaigns to debunk the myths that lead many in Asia to pour rhino-horn powder into useless pills.
Others warn that rhinos can’t wait for those beliefs to wither. “I do not think we have a significant amount of rhinos left to invest in education,” said Louise Joubert, founder of SanWild Wildlife Sanctuary, a rehabilitation center and reserve in South Africa’s Limpopo province. Rhinos “are on a ticking time bomb down to extinction.” Mr. Hume and many ranchers argue that legalizing the trade and flooding the market with sustainably harvested horn could sate demand, lower prices and cut poachers out of the equation.
Rhino horn is made of keratin, like human fingernails. It grows as much as 5 inches a year. Biologists say that as long as a stump of 2 to 3 inches remains, it can be trimmed, doing a rhino no more harm than a manicure. “There are no nerves in rhinos’ horns,” said Raoul du Toit, director of Zimbabwe’s Lowveld Rhino Trust. He said there is no evidence that the procedure affects rhinos’ breeding practices or leaves them more susceptible to predators. “Why would you hunt a rhino for seven, eight, nine, 10 kilos of horn when, in a lifetime, it can grow 70 kilos of horn?” Mr. Hume asked.
Animal-rights activists, conservationists and South Africa’s government are skeptical. Critics say that Mr. Hume and other large ranchers stand to profit if they can sell horn harvested from their herds.
“Where we differ is with your attitude towards the exploitation of an endangered species with the intention of making large profits,” Margot Stewart, founder of the nonprofit group Wild and Free South Africa, wrote in an open letter to Mr. Hume. She argues that rhinos are wild animals and should not be kept in paddocks like sheep or cows—and that it is unethical to farm and sell rhino horn since it has zero medicinal value. “Only two parties want this to continue: the rhino farmers and organized crime syndicates,” she added.
Mr. Hume petitioned South Africa’s High Court in Pretoria to lift the moratorium in September. A judgment is expected in the next few weeks. “I honestly believe the more horn we can sell to people who are using it, the less pressure there will be on my rhinos and Kruger Park’s rhinos,” Mr. Hume said, alluding to South Africa’s premier national park.
Goliath, a large male white rhino who has had his massive horn trimmed, on John Hume's ranch in September near Klerksdorp. Mr. Hume says his herd would be safer if trade in the rhinos’ coveted horns was legalized. ENLARGE
Goliath, a large male white rhino who has had his massive horn trimmed, on John Hume's ranch in September near Klerksdorp. Mr. Hume says his herd would be safer if trade in the rhinos’ coveted horns was legalized. Photo: Alexandra Wexler/The Wall Street Journal
The vast Kruger Park remains the epicenter of the rhino-poaching crisis, despite added K-9 units and night patrols. Poachers often slip into the park across South Africa’s unfenced border with Mozambique. They have killed 544 rhinos this year through August. Arrests are up 70% over the same period last year, and the park’s rangers regularly run into heavily armed poaching gangs.
“None of us here want a future where the only rhino we see will be on the back of a bank note or a postage stamp or in pictures in a library book,” said South African President Jacob Zuma Nov. 1 at an anti-poaching event near the park.
Mr. du Toit, the conservationist in Zimbabwe, warns that poverty and graft in the region are too widespread to trust that the rhino-horn market would be restricted to sustainably trimmed horns. Corruption “is our biggest problem,” he said, and it would “pervade the supply chains” of a legalized horn trade.
The sides argue about precedents. A one-off sale of elephant-ivory stockpiles from four southern African nations in 2008 only whetted appetites for tusks, and elephant poaching has since soared to all-time highs. But a sustained, legal tide of supply—not a brief flood—has worked for other species, like South America’s vicuña, a llama relative. Mr. Hume notes that vicuñas were once slaughtered for their softer-than-cashmere coats but are now farmed sustainably, back from the edge of extinction.
In 2008, the year before domestic trade in rhino horn was outlawed in South Africa, 83 rhinos were poached. By 2010, the slaughter had risen to 333, and it has been rising since. But Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation, which funds and operates anti-poaching efforts, argues that the best strategy is to “just protect the heck out of” the rhinos.
Recently, Mr. Hume was staring out the window of his white pickup truck, winding through a herd of rhinos that seemed more like docile cows than wild beasts. He chided a bull named Goliath for ambling into the territory of another rhino called Champ. “That’s boys being boys,” Mr. Hume sighed.
With skyrocketing security costs, he fears that the savings he’s using to support his ranch may last less than three years. “When I run out of money, I can sit and say my prayers, do voodoo, whatever—but I guarantee you the poachers will have a field day,” Mr. Hume said. “I sell rhino horn, or all my rhino die.”
Write to Alexandra Wexler at email@example.com