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A recently de-horned rhino rejoins the herd owned by John Hume, who argues that he can help the species avoid extinction if he is allowed to sell the horns of those he raises an d use the proceeds to boost the population.

Cornell Tukiri

In the scrubby grasslands and thorn trees southwest of Johannesburg, the world's biggest rhino breeder is harvesting one of the planet's most lucrative products.

The stockpile of rhino horn on John Hume's ranch could be worth up to $300-million on the streets of Vietnam or China. With a retail value of up to $60,000 (U.S.) a kilogram, rhino horn has become more valuable than gold or cocaine.

Mr. Hume, a gruff, 74-year-old millionaire, owns a total of 1,410 rhinos – far more than most African countries these days. He has already harvested five tonnes of horn, which his workers cut off the animals with a hacksaw in a 20-minute operation that he compares to a trip to the dentist.

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Animal-rights activists have denounced him as cruel and unethical, but Mr. Hume says he finds it unfair that he is portrayed as the "ogre" of the wildlife industry. He is convinced he is saving a magnificent species from extinction by pioneering a sustainable commercial use for its horns, while making the rhinos less of a lure for poachers.

His $300-million stockpile is just one of the prizes up for grabs in the high-stakes negotiations that began this week at a global treaty convention in Johannesburg. The larger issue – and the crucial question for the fate of elephants, rhinos and other species – is whether to ban all trade in these animals and their products, or instead allow hunters and ranchers to find commercial value in them, a policy that could expand their habitat and population.

The global treaty, known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), sets the legally binding rules for the trade of animal and plant products for 183 nations. Its 12-day meeting, attended by about 3,500 delegates and observers, is the biggest-ever global wildlife conference, with a record number of nations and agenda items.

It's a crucial moment for Africa's wildlife. Rhinos and elephants have been decimated by illegal trafficking in recent years. A study released this week found a shocking loss of 111,000 elephants across Africa in the past decade, largely due to poaching for ivory.

Last week, just before visiting Canada, the Duke of Cambridge issued a passionate warning that elephants could become extinct within 25 years. At the same time, Africa lost a record total of 1,338 rhinos to poachers last year, leaving the future of that species hanging in the balance, too.

Now CITES must decide whether a limited commercial trade – the sale of existing stockpiles of ivory and rhino horn – could reduce poaching and generate revenue for conservation.

But behind this immediate challenge is a larger debate, involving many of the same issues raised by the legalization of drugs or other products. Private rhino owners argue, for example, that prohibition has never succeeded against marijuana or alcohol. Legalization, they say, might even reduce the consumption of rhino horn, by forcing out the poachers and illegal traders and replacing them with a carefully regulated trade.

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Their critics disagree. Even a small legal trade, they say, could open a Pandora's box of unpredictable consequences. Instead of replacing the poached ivory and rhino horn with regulated products, a legal trade could stimulate new demand and make it easier for poachers to hide their illegal goods, they say.

Mr. Hume left his remote farm and drove into Johannesburg this week to watch the CITES debates. He was infuriated to see the animal-rights activists with the upper hand – which probably means a continued ban on the rhino trade.

"They are determined to keep the criminals earning all the money," he told The Globe and Mail. "It's incredibly frustrating how the world is determined to go on persecuting the rhino.

"What the world is making us do to the rhinos will make them go extinct – unless we change our policy and stop destroying the horns, which only raises the black-market price and makes it more profitable for the criminal."

This is the first time in nearly 20 years that the CITES conference has ventured into southern Africa, where the private hunting and ranching lobby is strongest. These are multimillion-dollar industries here, employing thousands of people and generating huge revenue for private companies and governments.

While the CITES delegates meet in a vast room of airport-hangar dimensions at the top of a convention centre in Johannesburg's affluent Sandton suburb, the real negotiations and strategy sessions are under way in the backrooms of the floors below.

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In a lower-floor exhibition hall, the contrasts are extreme: pro-hunting and ranching groups sit uneasily in their booths, cheek-by-jowl with the colourful stands of the animal-rights lobbyists. It's a political battleground, symbolized by the global furor over the Minnesota dentist who killed a Zimbabwean lion named Cecil last year. The private rhino owners, struggling to make their case, are launching a $70,000 campaign to get their message out on social media, where they are routinely beaten up by outraged animal-rights activists.

While their image was badly dented by the Cecil uproar, the African hunters and ranchers are raising legitimate questions about the best ways to protect the future of elephants, rhinos and other iconic species. They believe that the ranching or controlled hunting of these animals, like a farmer with a crop, can make them a sustainable and protected resource – and much less vulnerable to poaching.

'I always back the underdog'

Mr. Hume made his fortune in business by developing South African holiday resorts. In 1992, he set up a game farm with antelope and buffalo. Then he decided that his life's work was to save the rhino from extinction. Today he owns more of the lumbering prehistoric-looking creatures than any other private farmer in the world – more, in fact, than any country except Namibia and South Africa.

"I have a fatal flaw in my personality – I always back the underdog, which invariably means that I back the loser," he says. "When I got to know rhinos, I found they had a wonderful personalities, better than any other animal. You've got to get to know them. Even the black rhinos [considered more aggressive] – they're all bluster."

His ambition, he says, is to breed 200 rhinos every year. So far, since the 1990s, he has bred 960 in total, including white rhinos and the less common black rhinos.

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But the cost of protecting his rhinos has soared exponentially as the poaching crisis grows worse. In 2007, barely a dozen rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa. Since then, the illegal trade has swollen into a national disaster.

Poachers killed 1,175 rhinos here last year, fuelled by demand from newly affluent consumers in Vietnam and China, where rhino horn has become a status symbol and a trendy "cure" for hangovers and other ailments, ground up into a powder and consumed with water. (Rhino horn consists of keratin, which is similar to human hair and fingernails – and medically useless.)

Until five years ago, Mr. Hume didn't need to spend anything on security. Then he lost several rhinos to poachers, and today he is spending about $215,000 a month to guard his herd.

He says he just wants to recover these costs by selling rhino horn legally. But he can't sell the horn to Asian buyers because of the CITES rules, and he can't sell to domestic buyers because of a South African moratorium, imposed in 2009.

That could be about to change. This year, Mr. Hume and another rhino owner persuaded a South African court to quash the moratorium, on the grounds that the government had failed to consult owners before banning their products. The government has appealed to the highest court, the Constitutional Court, but is expected to lose – which would allow Mr. Hume to begin selling horns domestically.

"In South Africa, we have 400,000 ethnic Chinese," he says. "To me, the ethnic Chinese are a very good bet to target. It won't put jam on the bread, but it will certainly buy the bread – the cost of protecting my rhinos and letting them breed."

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The domestic trade, he says, could become a "wedge" to force open the international trade, even if it leads to breaches of the legal ban on selling to Asia. "The animal-rights people say, 'Wouldn't it be terrible if someone smuggled one of my horns to Vietnam?' But if my horn gets to Vietnam, it might save an order that would otherwise go to the poachers. Why should I support laws that I believe are killing my rhinos?"

Mr. Hume is supported by activists such as Eugene Lapointe, a Canadian hunting enthusiast and former Ottawa bureaucrat who headed CITES from 1982 until he was forced out in 1990 by opponents who disliked his lobbying against the ivory-trade ban. Today, as head of a Swiss-based conservation trust, Mr. Lapointe remains an active lobbyist. Criticizing the "hysteria" over the ivory trade, he argues that the ban has failed to stop large-scale poaching. He describes the burning of ivory stockpiles, as Kenya has done, as a modern form of witch-burning – an irrational "inquisition."

At the age of 77, Mr. Lapointe still hunts moose and deer in the wilderness of Quebec, just as he did in his childhood. He calls for a balance between the competing uses of wildlife resources, including commercial uses. Ranchers such as Mr. Hume can play a major role in wildlife conservation, he says.

The South African government, swayed by the arguments of its hunting and ranching industries, came close to proposing a legalized rhino-horn trade at CITES this year. But at the last minute it backed away, and the legalization proposal is instead being made by tiny Swaziland, which has only 73 rhinos in its national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

Ted Reilly is the legendary conservation guru who created Swaziland's national park system in the 1960s when much of its wildlife had vanished. He argues that the trade ban is failing. "The best way to emasculate criminals is to decriminalize their contraband," he says in the Swazi proposal to CITES.

A similar proposal is being made by Namibia and Zimbabwe to sell their ivory stockpiles. They have unofficial support from many other countries in southern Africa, where – unlike the rest of the continent – the elephant population has soared.

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Some southern African governments even support the export of live elephants (China is the biggest buyer) – a practice that has become common in Zimbabwe. "Good conservation produces surpluses," Mr. Reilly told CITES this week.

In many of southern Africa's most famous game parks, the elephant population has grown too big, leading to massive damage to trees and bushes. Chobe National Park in Botswana, for example, is estimated to have as many as 120,000 elephants. As a result, its forests are so damaged that they "look like a war zone," according to Stan Burger, president of the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa. He argues that 3 to 5 per cent of southern Africa's elephants can be hunted without jeopardizing the population.

Professional hunters believe their revenue-generating activities have helped expand the wildlife habitat in southern Africa, by providing a financial incentive for protecting animals. Trophy hunting may have actually boosted the number of lions and other animals in southern Africa, encouraging farmers to turn their land into wildlife ranches.

Charges of 'eco-colonialism'

There is also a political dimension to the wildlife debates. Southern African governments, pushing for legalized trade, have complained that they are victims of "eco-colonialism" by wealthy developed countries that want to impose their restrictions on Africa. This argument is undermined, however, by the fact that 29 countries in the rest of Africa have banded together to seek a stronger ivory-trade ban.

The rhino and ivory legalization proposals are likely to be defeated when they reach a vote at CITES on Monday. But the battle is not over. In his speech to the conference, South African President Jacob Zuma spoke approvingly of the "sustainable use" of wildlife – one of the slogans of the hunting and ranching industry. His environment minister, Edna Molewa, told The Globe that her government could revive the rhino trade proposal in time for the next CITES conference in 2019.

Yet legalization would be a dangerous step into the unknown. When a South African government committee asked economists to study whether a legalized rhino-horn trade would stimulate new demand from Asian consumers, it couldn't get a clear answer. It admitted that legalization could lead to "increased uncertainty and risks."

A legalized ivory trade has the same risks. Its proponents tend to make unrealistic assumptions, according to Ross Harvey, a researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs.

"Ivory tends to be treated as though it is perfectly renewable," he said in an academic analysis this year. "The major risk of this approach is that, if the sale of legally stockpiled ivory onto the market failed to reduce the price, and inadvertently expanded demand, species extinction could be quickened."

That may not be a risk the world is ready to take.

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.

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