In June 1996 a game rancher named John Hume paid about $200,000 for three pairs of endangered black rhinos from the wildlife department of the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. Among them was a male who would come to be called “Number 65,” and whose death would play a central role in the debate about conservation.
South Africa did not start the auctions because it had a surplus of the animals. Quite the opposite. Although the black rhinos had been reproducing, they were still critically endangered. Only about 1,200 remained within the country’s borders. But black rhinos are massive animals, and with just under 7 percent of the country set aside in protected areas, conservationists and wildlife departments had run out of room to accommodate them.
Hume’s 6,500-hectare ranch, Mauricedale, lies in the hot, scrubby veldt in northeastern South Africa. Hume, 68, made his fortune in taxis, hotels, and time-shares, and Mauricedale was his Xanadu, a retirement project of immense proportions. In the late 1990s he began buying up many of the neighboring farms and ranches, and his triangular estate would soon be boxed in on all sides by roads and sugar cane plantations. Hume also was rapidly becoming the largest private owner of white rhinos; there are currently 250 split between Mauricedale and another similar property. He also raises cape buffalo, roan and sable antelopes, hippos, giraffes, zebras, and ostriches.
When the black rhino bull arrived, Hume’s farm manager—a burly Zimbabwean named Geoff York whose typical mode of dress is army boots and a pair of purple shorts—tranquilized him, clipped two notches in his left ear and two in the right, and gave him a number: 65.