ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
We're about to meet a rhino farmer in South Africa who wants to be able to sell the horns of his animals. He says it's a way to help protect rhinos from poaching. International trade in rhino horn has been banned for decades. But the Supreme Court in South Africa is deciding whether to uphold a domestic ban on rhino horn sales. Peter Granitz has the story.
PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: It's a cold, overcast, windy day here on John Hume's game ranch on the plains southwest of Johannesburg. Other than a few shrubs, little breaks the view across the vast flat landscape. A handful of workers drop feeding bins from a flatbed truck.
They're watched by about a dozen rhinos waiting for feeding time. The odd thing about the animals - their horns are all cut down. Hume is a rhino farmer. He made his fortune in taxis and hotels in Zimbabwe and South Africa and retired to breed animals 25 years ago. He now owns 1,300 rhinos - more than anyone else in the world. After buying his first in 1992, he says he learned they're docile, even friendly.
JOHN HUME: So as personalities go, they don't deserve to be persecuted at all, and yet they are subjected to the most persecution of any animal.
GRANITZ: Rhino horn is made of keratin, also the chief component in hair and fingernails. But in some Asian countries, such as Vietnam, it's believed that ingesting powdered rhino horn cures a host of ailments from cancer to hangovers.
Julian Rademeyer is the author of "Killing For Profit." He says rumors of horns' medicinal benefits float through the markets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. And recently, it's become a status symbol like diamonds and ivory.
JULIAN RADEMEYER: The people that can afford it are very wealthy businessmen, in many cases, wealthy government officials, people with positions of power and status.
GRANITZ: On the black market, the price of rhino horn can fetch more than gold. In an effort to stem poaching, international trade was banned in 1977. In South Africa, domestic trade in rhino horn has been illegal since 2009, but poaching has only increased. Hume says the only way to save the species is to sell the horn. In order to protect his animals, Hume says he spends more than $200,000 a month in security.
HUME: I will run out of money. I will run out of protection of my rhinos. I will not indefinitely be able to afford the helicopters, the soldiers, the radars.
GRANITZ: Rhino horn grows back if not fully removed from the animal, and Hume regularly trims it off his rhinos. He stockpiled five tons of the stuff, and for a brief period, it looked like he was going to get his way. Humes sued the government to overturn the domestic ban and won. The moratorium was dropped in May. Then the government appealed, and while the case awaits proceeding at the constitutional court, the ban is back in place.
Many conservationists disagree with Hume's approach. They've chosen to fight so-called demand-reduction battles to combat poaching, meaning they'd rather control Asian appetite for horn than legalize the trade. Allison Thomson, an activist who runs an NGO that provides game parks with anti-poaching equipment, says legalizing the domestic trade would send a mixed message.
ALLISON THOMSON: It makes any demand-reduction campaign absolutely worthless.
GRANITZ: Thomson says there's no reason to believe a poacher would apply for the necessary permits to buy and sell rhino horn if the ban is dropped. The South African government has actually pushed to legalize international trade in the past.
Thea Carroll with the Department of Environmental Affairs says it's not planning to anytime soon. She says the government investigated ending the local ban in 2012, but decided it wasn't ready.
THEA CARROLL: We will only allow the domestic trade if we are convinced that our system will be in place to ensure that it doesn't allow for leakage and smacking, so strong measures in place to regulate it. We provide for regular inspections in terms of the inspection of rhino horns, audits of the stockpiles, etc.
GRANITZ: Meaning if the court strikes down the ban, there could be some time before the government issues permits for sales. Rhino farmers and the South African government do agree on one thing. Rhino horn is a valuable asset worth hanging onto. The government has its own stockpile of 25 tons. For NPR News, I'm Peter Granitz in Pretoria.
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