By Wendell Roelf
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - The owner of the world's biggest private rhino herd took court action on Thursday to force South Africa's government to allow its first online sale of rhino horn, which he aims to hold next week.
John Hume has about 1,500 rhinos on his sprawling farm southeast of Johannesburg, where he breeds the animals.
He regularly cuts their horns, which then grow back, and has built a large stockpile, some 500 kg of which he plans to auction after in April successfully challenging government rules banning their sale.
South Africa is home to more than 80 percent of the world's rhinos, whose population has been devastated by poaching for buyers in Vietnam and China, where it is coveted as an ingredient in traditional medicine.
Global trade in rhino horn is banned under a U.N. convention. That means any horn acquired legally in South Africa could not be exported, but conservationists have expressed concerns that domestic buyers could illicitly supply Asian markets.
Hume said in papers to the high court seen by Reuters that the government was withholding already authorized permits for the sale of 264 horns in the Aug. 21-24 auction.
A spokesman for Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa said she would oppose Hume's application, and that no rhino horn trade permits had been issued as yet..
The number of poached rhinos in South Africa fell by 13 to 529 between January and June compared with 2016, a trend welcomed with "cautious optimism" by the government in July.
But numbers had surged from 83 in 2008 to a record 1,215 in 2014 to meet burgeoning demand in newly affluent countries such as Vietnam, where the horns are used as status symbols and believed to contain aphrodisiac properties.
(Editing by James Macharia and John Stonestreet)