A herd of 2,000 rhinoceroses urgently in need of a new owner has finally found one: The rhinos and the farm where they live in South Africa have been purchased by a conservation group that plans to release the animals into the wild over the next decade.
The southern white rhinos, thought to be the largest single population of their kind, were put up for auction in April with a starting price of $10 million. No bidders came forward. At that point, the future of the animals appeared precarious. But the conservation group African Parks announced this month that it had reached a deal to take over the herd.
“We felt we had a moral obligation to step in,” said Peter Fearnhead, the group’s cofounder and chief executive.
The 30-square-mile farm, Platinum Rhino, about 100 miles southwest of Johannesburg, was set up in 2009 by John Hume, a businessperson originally from Zimbabwe. Hume has said that he created the farm because he wanted to help rhinos by building up their numbers. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
Hume did “an amazing job” at maintaining genetic diversity in the herd, said Mike Knight, chair of the rhino specialist group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, making it especially valuable for conservation.
Southern white rhinos nearly vanished in the early 20th century, primarily because of excessive hunting. They made a comeback thanks to a concerted conservation effort that began in South Africa after a pocket of fewer than 100 surviving animals was discovered in what is now Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in KwaZulu Natal province.
All southern white rhinos alive today, estimated at 16,800, are descendants of that group. Roughly 80 percent of the surviving population is in South Africa, and of those animals, roughly 53 percent are privately owned, Knight said.
Northern white rhinos, the only other subspecies of white rhino, have been reduced to just two surviving individuals, both female, in Kenya.
Platinum Rhino had been struggling financially for years. Around 2015, a sharp increase in rhino poaching drastically increased the cost of maintaining the farm and other private and public herds. State-run nature parks and private rhino owners were forced to spend exorbitant sums to protect their animals from illegal hunters seeking rhino horns. Hume has said that, by 2016, he was burning through $175,000 a month for security.
“It was becoming more difficult for him to fund the farm and the upkeep of these animals,” Fearnhead said. “His callouts for financial support, from whomever, from wherever, got louder and louder.”
The failed auction in April, he added, made it clear that “this was a conservation crisis.”
After months of negotiations and due diligence, African Parks, which is based in Johannesburg and partners with governments in 12 countries across Africa to manage 77,000 square miles of protected areas, announced an agreement with Hume on Sept. 4 to buy the property, the equipment, and all of the animals on it. The purchase price, which the group declined to disclose, was covered by anonymous donors.
The roughly 100 workers at Platinum Rhino will be retained as employees of African Parks. A stockpile of rhino horns that Hume had harvested without harming the animals and had tried to sell, without success, was not part of the deal, Fearnhead said.
African Parks’ plan is to start moving rhinos into the wild as soon as possible, preferably by the beginning of 2024.
The first challenge will be finding protected areas large and secure enough to accommodate new breeding populations of rhinos. African Parks plans to move the rhinos to new sites, probably between seven to 20 of them, some managed by the group and others overseen by governments, communities, or other conservation organizations.
African Parks will also have to raise funds to relocate the animals, which can weigh more than 5,000 pounds. It costs about $1,500 to move a single rhino by land within South Africa; $5,500 per rhino for land transport to neighboring nations; and $50,000 per rhino for air transport to African countries farther afield.
Some work will also have to be done to prepare the captive animals for life in the wild, Knight said. But because they are grazers, and because they are already living in groups in fairly large enclosures, “I don’t see this being a big issue.”
The largest transfer African Parks has ever attempted was in 2021, when the group moved 30 rhinos to Rwanda from South Africa. All of them survived. The group will need to release 300 rhinos each year for the next 10 years to remain ahead of new births at the rhino farm, where the population is growing by about 10 percent annually.
“It’s really exciting to see this positive step toward resolving what has been one of the most complex challenges facing rhino conservation in recent times,” said Jo Shaw, chief executive of Save the Rhino International, a nonprofit conservation group.
“Definitely there’s going to be challenges, though, and the biggest one will be the long-term sustainability of the future release areas,” Shaw said.