Big rhino horn auction up in the air amid ‘overwhelming’ interest from buyers

21 August 2017 - 18:00 By Tony Carnie
The rhino in the Mthetomusha game reserve have been ear-notched and were dehorned as part of anti-poaching efforts. The small horn has since grown back a little.
The rhino in the Mthetomusha game reserve have been ear-notched and were dehorned as part of anti-poaching efforts. The small horn has since grown back a little.
Image: Reuben Goldberg

The controversial world's first online rhino horn sale has been stymied‚ again.

John Hume‚ a local wildlife rancher who owns more than 1‚500 rhinos‚ won an urgent High Court case on Sunday compelling Environment Minister Edna Molewa to hand over an auction permit just hours before the sale was due to begin at noon on Monday.

But on Monday‚ South African auction house Vans Auctioneers confirmed that the event has been delayed until 2pm on Wednesday because bidders don't have buying permits.

Spokesman Johan van Eyk confirmed on Monday that while the auction was delayed‚ the interest levels and response from prospective buyers has been “overhwhelming”. He wouldn't say whether most bidders were local or foreign. There is major demand for rhino horns from Vietnam and China‚ mainly for traditional medicine.

But the big question – which neither Hume nor Molewa’s department has answered – is whether the auction can still go ahead if buyers have not been granted possession permits in advance.

As of last week‚ Molewa said no permits had been issued to buyers and in a media statement on Monday‚ the minister emphasised that Hume could only sell rhino horn to a person who had a separate (buyer’s) permit to purchase rhino horns from him.

She also made it clear Hume’s permit did not authorise international trade in rhino horn and reiterated that her department should be “granted access to the online auction to do the necessary compliance monitoring”.

However‚ neither Molewa nor Hume have responded to written questions from TimesLIVE on what would happen if prospective buyers do not get buyers’ permits issued in time for the auction.

Environmental experts have suggested that Hume’s 264 horns could be sold and retained in trust by Hume pending final issue of permits. However it remains unclear whether buyers would be prepared to bid without more concrete guarantees.

And while buyers from Vietnam and China may employ local proxies to bid on their behalf‚ another major uncertainty is whether foreign buyers will be prepared to buy‚ knowing that the horns cannot be exported because of the 40-year global ban on commercial horn sales across international borders.

Pelham Jones‚ chairman of the Private Rhino Owners Association‚ has suggested that several investors could be prepared to treat the horns as an investment in the international futures markets – where crops such as maize or wheat are sold months or years before they are physically planted in the soil.

It appears that Molewa’s department may resort to further legal action to clarify whether future permits can be issued by delegated officials in her department‚ or only by Molewa personally.

“On the issue of the delegation of powers within the Department of Environmental Affairs‚ the judge acknowledged that this was a complex issue that could not be decided on an urgent basis by an urgent court hearing‚ without consideration of legal argument to be heard in the ordinary course‚” her department said.