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The Mpatamacha wildlife auction venue doesn’t have a regular address. No one does out here in this drought-hammered part of South Africa’s Limpopo Province. The venue owners told me to drive to the tiny town of Vaalwater, five hours northwest of Johannesburg (“You can find that, right?”), head out into the bushveld on the Melkrivier road (“It’s not numbered, just ask someone”) for another 30 kilometers (19 miles) and then look for their big game pens on the left.

So I did, and now I’m in a crowded, low-lit, thatch-roofed hall, watching some sort of strange matinee rap act.

Auctioneer Brandon Leer, in a dark tie and pale blue office shirt, is on a spotlit podium droning out rubber-lipped rhythms within which I make out a few numbers and English words. He performs for hours, punctuating each “auction rap” with gavel whacks, sips of Coke and enthusiastic Afrikaans descriptions of the upcoming auction lots: a prize nyala, some gruff-looking blue wildebeest, a small herd of elegant gemsbok, a pregnant female white rhinoceros with a young calf (“three in one!”), an unusual coffee-colored springbok, an arc-horned sable antelope — hundreds of animals of dozens of species. Some of them are waiting just outside in enclosures. Others are listed only in the auction catalog because they’re too expensive to bring here, or sellers want to hide their locations because high-value beasts like rhinos are targets for poachers and thieves.

A family of wildlife ranchers inspects animals held in game pens prior to an auction at Mpatamacha wildlife auction venue​ ​in Limpopo Province, South Africa​, while a “color variant” gemsbok awaits auction. ​Photos​ ​by​ Adam Welz

A family of wildlife ranchers inspects animals held in game pens prior to an auction at Mpatamacha wildlife auction venue​ ​in Limpopo Province, South Africa​, while a “color variant” gemsbok awaits auction. ​Photos​ ​by​ Adam Welz

I’ve come to Mpatamacha to learn more about South Africa’s thriving private wildlife ranching industry. According to its boosters, the industry will not only save Africa’s wild species and natural habitats but also ride out the coming mega-droughts brought on by climate change more profitably than traditional farming while also creating good jobs and producing free-range meat for the masses. Some conservationists and scientists are more skeptical, however, describing a business that’s shot through with perverse incentives and doused in greenwash.


Most African countries do not allow the private ownership of wild game animals, and most have seen wildlife numbers plummet as human populations have grown. South Africa was, until recent decades, no different. The Europeans who began colonizing southern Africa in the 1650s generally saw wildlife as a nuisance best eradicated. Large animals were dangerous, competed with livestock for grazing and could spread disease into domestic herds — and they were also good to eat. The colonizers shot millions of wild animals, sowing increasingly organized carnage across the region and causing extinctions as they went.

The graceful bluebuck, an antelope, was gone by 1800. The Cape warthog and the quagga, a type of half-striped zebra, died out later in the 1800s. Others, like the Cape mountain zebra, the bontebok, the black wildebeest and the southern white rhinoceros barely escaped extinction thanks to the determined efforts of a few farsighted people — many of them private landowners — pushing against the bloody tide.

Private Game Ranches

Square Miles Covered

Although private conservationists were instrumental in saving some of South Africa’s most iconic wild species and public appreciation of conservation grew as South Africa developed its national parks during the 1900s, wildlife numbers on private land were slow to rise. There was little incentive for profit-oriented landowners to conserve free-ranging wildlife because it was legally considered res nullius, or nobody’s property. This meant that the government could regulate wildlife but private landowners’ ability to make money from it was limited.

This changed in 1991 with the passage of the Game Theft Act, which granted legal ownership of wildlife to landowners who obtained a “certificate of adequate enclosure” from the government. If landowners fenced their land to legislated standards, they could claim the wildlife on their land as private property, even if it escaped. Wildlife could thus be traded for profit and borrowed against, and the risk of losing ownership of valuable animals — if, say, they wandered off through a hole in a fence — was sharply reduced. South Africa’s private wildlife ranching industry has grown rapidly ever since.

Private ranches provide important habitat for threatened species such as African painted dog​. Photo © iStockphoto.com/jez_bennett

A 2016 study by South Africa’s Endangered Wildlife Trust, or EWT, a conservation nonprofit, estimates that South Africa now boasts about 9,000 private game ranches covering roughly 170,000 square kilometers (66,000 square miles). The study estimates that private ranches accommodate about 6 million wild large herbivores, which is extraordinary given that in 1966 only about one-tenth of that number were estimated to exist on all land, private and government-owned, in the country. (Industry representatives have in recent years claimed that about 20 million head of wildlife are now on private land, but this number is unsupported by rigorous counts.) Private ranches provide important habitat for threatened species such as African painted dog and black rhino, giving vital support to conservation efforts.

Between 2011 and 2015 many wildlife ranchers made higher profits than investors buying shares on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, drawing a stampede of new money into wildlife and incentivizing many traditional farmers to switch over to game. According to the EWT report 225,000 live animals were traded privately in 2014, generating almost US$400 million in revenue at the time.

These stats are impressive and seem to back supporters’ claims about private wildlife ranching’s ability to increase animal numbers and generate profits above those of traditional ranching. But what does this booming business look like up close? Does it live up to its promise?


Berdus Henrico — pictured here on the private wildlife ranch he manages near Melkrivier, Limpopo Province, South Africa — bought three large male impalas at the Mpatamacha wildlife auction with the intent to breed with the ranch’s herd, which would make it more desirable to hunters.​ Photo​ ​by​ Adam Welz

I hope to find answers among members of auctioneer Leer’s audience. They’re mostly large white Afrikaner men in camo and khaki, shorts being the legwear of choice. Some carry kids. Some carry sidearms. Some carry both. Many down beers as the day winds on. They represent a spectrum of industry players, from wealthy ranch owners (one of whom arrives in his own helicopter) to boots-on-the-ground managers like Berdus Henrico, who spends most of the auction on his cellphone with his boss, who is on the line from a distant coastal resort.

Although Henrico is unimpressed with today’s sale because the reserve prices — the lowest prices sellers will accept — are in his view too high, he bids successfully on three large male impalas with long, graceful horns. After the auction I travel the short distance to the ranch he manages to witness their release. He recently shot most of the male impalas here because, he says, they were ugly specimens with short necks and narrowly spaced, small horns. The new purchases will breed with the remaining herd, improving its quality, he told me, which would draw more hunters to the ranch.

Bidders ​register​ ​at the​ Mpatamacha wildlife auction facility. Photo​ ​by​ Adam Welz

Hunting “is the backbone of the wildlife ranching industry in South Africa,” says Adri Kitshoff-Botha, a hunter herself and CEO of Wildlife Ranching South Africa. Hunting creates a consumer base for much of the industry, but wildlife ranching also relies on the breeding and sale of live animals, game products (such as meat and skins), and ecotourism (also termed “nonconsumptive use”). The industry classifies hunters as either “biltong” hunters or trophy hunters. Biltong hunters are South Africans who hunt for meat for personal consumption, biltong being South Africa’s version of American jerky. Trophy hunters are mostly foreigners hunting animals individually selected for particular traits, like long horns or striking colors.

Local biltong hunters harvest about 280,000 animals annually, generating almost US$58 million, according to the EWT study. Less than half that number of animals — about 130,000 — are taken for trophies, but trophy animals generate almost three times more total revenue — about US$175 million.

Lions generate more trophy hunt income than any other species. In 2015, the most recent year for which official figures are available, 638 lions were trophy hunted in South Africa, mostly by American hunters, bringing in about US$16 million in fees.  Around 8,000 lions are currently kept at about 200 captive breeding facilities, where they are intensively bred and often hand-raised in cages or small paddocks. A hunter or hunt salesperson can pick a captive-raised lion of their choice in person or from online photos (golden or black mane? Scratched or pristine face?). The animal is released into a “wild” area sometimes as little as a day before the hunter arrives to kill it in the company of a professional guide, providing a guaranteed trophy that conforms to predetermined standards and a hunt that fits a small time budget. (These so-called “canned hunts” draw outrage from animal welfare advocates, and because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers captive-bred lion hunts to have no conservation value the agency banned the import of captive-bred lion trophies into the U.S. in October 2016.)

Hunters pay significantly more for exceptional trophy animals that will be recognized in the record books of hunting organizations like Safari Club International, strongly incentivizing ranchers to breed for large body size and long horns. Game breeding is therefore becoming increasingly sophisticated. Animals undergo ever-more-advanced genetic testing, ranchers pay for research on animal diseases and artificial insemination, and studbooks are routinely kept so that animals’ genealogies can be promoted to buyers.


Animals such as this long-horned Cape buffalo bull named Inala, which sold for US$11 million in 2016, have become status symbols of the ultra-wealthy.

Marketing campaigns are built around individual “superstar” stud animals which sell for extraordinary prices, not only because they’ll produce offspring that trophy hunters will pay more to shoot, but because exceptional animals are now status symbols among the super rich; any multimillionaire can buy a Ferrari, but not every multimillionaire can have a live, world-record wild beast. In September 2016 a particularly large and long-horned Cape buffalo bull named Inala was auctioned for 168 million South African rand, about US$11 million at the time.

Inala was bred on one of South Africa’s most famous private game ranches, Thaba Tholo, a 37,000-hectare (91,000-acre) tract of Limpopo Province bushveld. Thaba Tholo’s CEO, Rubin Els, describes the ranch to me as “a conservation enterprise, but built on business principles.”

It was formed in 1989 by consolidating 22 cattle farms, removing the fences between them and reintroducing wild species including lion, cheetah, elephant, black rhino, Cape buffalo and many different antelope. Thaba Tholo breeds animals both extensively — where they are allowed to roam and behave naturally across tens of thousands of hectares — and intensively, where selected breeding animals are tightly managed in small “camps.”

Els talks of Thaba Tholo with obvious pride, claiming it as a conservation win that has improved natural habitat, provided good jobs for 125 people, funded schools in underserved rural areas, and made far larger returns for its investors than if they’d continued raising cattle. Although the ranch conducts some hunting, it makes most of its income from live sales. Els emphasizes profit, saying that Thaba Tholo’s conservation and community enrichment projects are “all made possible with money.”

Els sees a valuable role for South Africa’s private game breeders in restocking other African countries whose wildlife numbers have plummeted after decades of neglect. Thaba Tholo has a breeding herd of rare East African black rhino — the only such herd in South Africa — and he recently signed a contract to reintroduce some to Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, which lost all its rhinos to poachers. Even though the largest population of East African black rhino is in nearby Kenya, it was quicker for the Rwandans to source rhinos from Thaba Tholo. Els points out that government-to-government restocking efforts in Africa are often slowed by political differences, bureaucracy and a lack of funds, barriers more easily overcome by the private sector.


In addition to Cape buffalo, sable antelope are popular among breeders and collectors. They’re striking creatures with contrasting black-and-white hides and long, arcing horns. The larger the animal and the longer and more symmetrical its horns, the more it’s worth, with top-quality males going for more than US$1 million. The sable business is big and profitable and, according to many scientists and conservationists, illustrates much of what is wrong with South Africa’s private wildlife industry.

Signs in wildlife ranching regions of South Africa’s Limpopo Province warn of wildlife road hazards. Photo​ ​by​ Adam Welz

Sable antelope can be divided into different subspecies (identifiable “races” within species) and/or ecotypes (distinct forms within species that are adapted to and occupy a particular habitat). Each subspecies or ecotype of sable is native to a different part of southern and eastern Africa; they can be told apart by appearance or genetic testing. Although scientists debate the number and natural distribution of sable subspecies and ecotypes, it’s well known that the type naturally found in South Africa, commonly called the Matetsi sable, is of moderate size and horn length compared with those from Zambia, which are appreciably larger, with longer horns.

In recent decades South African wildlife ranchers have imported hundreds of Zambian sable and crossbred them with Matetsi sable to create more valuable stud and trophy animals. They’ve also brought animals in from Tanzania to create new bloodlines for the trade, and now Matetsi sable populations on many ranches are becoming genetically “diluted.”

Ongoing hybridization, not only in sable but also in other species, causes what biologists call genetic homogenization; as different subspecies or ecotypes are mixed together, they become increasingly similar to each other. Unique local forms, which may be superiorly adapted to their environments, can thus be lost.

“We know that mixing animals from different subspecies and populations presents a high risk,” says David Mallon, co-chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Antelope Specialist Group. It’s an “iceberg issue,” he says. “We can see it in the water but we don’t know the scale of the problem. That’s partly because we don’t know a lot about the natural genetic structure of many antelope populations, and also because we don’t know exactly how many animals have been moved and where to. There’s no central registry [so] there’s no way to see who has done what and where.”

Pete Morkel, a prominent South African wildlife veterinarian, bemoans the threat to locally evolved animals in more pithy terms: “For thousands of years subspecies have been separated, they’ve clearly evolved in different directions, but now, just because a hunter wants a few more inches, we must give up on our own special things! Who are we to make this decision? But the wildlife ranchers are powerful. They have money and the best lawyers, and no one can take them on.”

By contrast, many game breeders claim that by crossing subspecies to create animals with “superior genetics” they are countering inbreeding, and that by breeding animals with bigger horns they are replacing the large-horned animals that hunters of previous eras killed off. There is a grain of truth in the latter argument: Studies of bighorn sheep in Canada and African elephants in Zambia indicate that populations under intense hunting pressure can evolve shorter horns or a larger proportion of tuskless individuals. Nevertheless, conservationists I’ve spoken with don’t support the current unregulated crossbreeding by non-scientist ranchers to correct these perceived problems.

Inbreeding, or breeding closely related individuals, can be bad for a population’s long-term survival, especially if there is a high incidence of genetic problems within the population. But its opposite, outbreeding, can also be dangerous. If you cross animals from an outside population that has evolved to thrive in particular conditions with a local population that has evolved to suit different local conditions, you may well “dilute” the local genes and produce offspring that are less fit than either of their parents. This is called outbreeding depression, a real danger to the survival of species, and I didn’t hear it mentioned once by game ranchers I spoke to while reporting this story.

In addition to large, long-horned animals, many South African game breeders have in recent years focused on so-called “color variant” animals. These are not different races or strains, but genetic “freaks” such as albino or melanistic (completely black) animals. Auctions often feature “golden” blue wildebeest, unusually pale gemsbok, black springbok and the like as headline lots. Color variants — which have no conservation value — have often reached enormous prices, but these have slumped since 2015, seemingly confirming the views of some analysts that they are a passing fad.


As intensive breeding of animals like sable becomes more lucrative, game ranches are increasingly being broken up into many small breeding “camps” so breeders can control mating and keep predators away from valuable antelope. Breeding camps are enclosed by very tall game fences, which, unlike low cattle fences, prevent almost all wildlife movement and cause what ecologists call landscape fragmentation. Game fences can cut wild animals off from traditional feeding and drinking areas and from potential mates, causing population collapses. Because they are often electrified, they directly kill many animals too.

A 2000 study (referenced in this 2008 study) estimated that there were 90,000 kilometers (about 56,000 miles) of game fence in South Africa. Lizanne Nel, conservation manager of the South African Hunters and Game Conservation Association, a pro-conservation hunters’ group, tells me that many more fences have gone up since then and that SAHGCA data show “exponential growth” in the number of landscape-fragmenting breeding camps. “We are now seeing fences with as many as 13 electrified strands in them,” she says, “not even small animals can get through.”

Ground pangolin​s​ ​are one of the species that has been affected by​ electrified game fence​s meant to keep animals both in and out of private game ranches. Here, a pangolin was electrocuted on the “trip line”​ in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province. Photo by Darren Pietersen

One of the species hit hard by electrified fences is the ground pangolin, a bizarre, rare and little-known mammal affectionately called “the walking pinecone.” It’s known to be threatened by poachers who sell its scales on illegal wildlife markets, but Raymond Jansen, the co-chair of the African Pangolin Working Group, tells me that he and his colleagues were also recording large numbers being electrocuted on low-slung “trip lines” placed to prevent animals from digging under game fences. Jansen says the game ranching industry is also “systematically wiping out large numbers of natural predators, including threatened species like African painted dog and cheetah” in order to protect valuable antelope.

Hybridization and intensive small-camp breeding may be producing thousands of large, valuable animals, but these are of almost no conservation value, say many conservation biologists. A preliminary assessment for South Africa’s Red List of threatened species indicates that less than 10 percent of the sable on private ranches can be considered “wild and free-roaming” and have the genetic integrity to contribute to conservation targets. Only about 5 percent of roan antelope, another species commonly bred in camps, are considered “wild and free roaming.” Therefore, although thousands of sable and roan are kept privately in South Africa, both species are on the Red List and considered at risk of extinction.

Because ranches can profit by offering a wide range of species to shoot or view, many bring species into areas where they aren’t naturally found, from either other parts of South Africa or other countries. Some South African ranches offer hunters a weird, multi-continental smorgasbord of targets, triggering concern among conservation biologists: Introduced animals can spread disease, says the Antelope Specialist Group’s David Mallon, or become invasive, breeding out of control, overgrazing habitat and pushing out local native species.

​Nyala are prized by game farmers because of their attractive appearance and tame demeanor, and have been introduced into many parts of South Africa where they did not naturally occur. Photo by Adam Welz

​Nyala are prized by game farmers because of their attractive appearance and tame demeanor, and have been introduced into many parts of South Africa where they did not naturally occur. Photo by Adam Welz

Animals such as warthog, nyala and impala are now thought to be spreading across large areas outside their natural range in South Africa thanks to ranching, and exotics like the Himalayan tahr and European fallow deer are now established in the country. A 2008 study found that South Africa had the second highest number of introduced exotic mammals in the world, at least 38 species (the U.S. is in first place, with at least 70). There are few data on the effects of introduced large mammals in Africa, says Mallon, although studies have shown that introduced nyala outcompete closely related bushbuck, and that introduced giraffe can change habitats by devastating acacia trees.


Wildlife does contribute to food security in South Africa. Wildlife Ranching South Africa’s Kitshoff-Botha says an estimated 120,000 to 150,000 metric tons (132,000 to 165,000 U.S. tons) of game is eaten in South Africa annually, some 20 percent of the red meat consumed in the country. She says this could be increased “drastically,” and the industry is currently working with government to change laws and regulations that constrain game meat production and sale. She touts the industry’s resilience in a climate-changing world; South Africa had its lowest-ever recorded rainfall in 2015, and 2016 was also remarkably dry, but although some wildlife has died due to drought, South Africa’s cattle herds have been hit far harder, she says.

%

Percentage of red meat eaten in South Africa that comes from wild game

While wildlife ranching may be more lucrative than conventional farming for landowners, it’s unclear if wildlife creates more and better jobs than cattle ranching, a claim made by industry representatives. Some wildlife ranchers tell me that they require far fewer employees than domestic stock ranches, and real estate agents often promote wildlife ranches on the basis that little labor is required. Studies of employment on wildlife ranches are small and contain conflicting data.

Another serious issue with South Africa’s game ranching industry is that there appears to be little evidence that it is racially inclusive. In a country with a tiny white minority, a recent legacy of white supremacist government and an official policy of black economic empowerment, the fact that the overwhelming majority of ranchers and managers are white and almost every low-paid ranch worker is black should be a major concern. Without concerted action to build more socially inclusive business models for this land-hungry industry, it could struggle to sell itself across Africa and may sooner or later face a political backlash that could sink it. (I noticed a single black bidder at the Mpatamacha auction. He stood alone at the back of the hall and left early without buying a thing.)

Nel of SAHGCA says private wildlife ranching can be a huge win for conservation if landowners focus on extensive ranching of free-ranging, naturally breeding animals rather than intensive, tightly managed breeding of animals kept in small, electric-fenced camps. But the industry as it is currently structured, she says, contains perverse incentives that often reward ranchers who do not behave in a conservation-friendly manner. Flippie Cloete, an economist at the University of the Free State who studies wildlife ranching, points out that a shift to more free-range ranching may already be underway due to simple economics: Over-breeding of color variants and some camp-bred species combined with reduced hunter demand for these animals has recently led to price collapses, and this will push ranchers to return to more extensive modes of ranching. Although the industry as a whole is doing well, “it’s just too expensive to keep animals in small camps and feed them 24/7” if premium prices are no longer being paid for them, Cloete says.

Matthew Child, the Red List coordinator for the Endangered Wildlife Trust, emphasizes that “over 60 percent of ranched mountain zebra and over 75 percent of ranched tsessebe [a type of antelope] can be considered wild” and therefore contribute to conservation, because in contrast to sable and roan, these threatened species are not usually intensively bred or confined to small areas. “This demonstrates that if the private sector and conservationists work together, both biodiversity and commercial goals can be achieved,” he says.

Many African governments face the challenge of providing better lives for their rapidly growing human populations. Until now this has meant ongoing, massive losses of wildlife and habitat, and many wild species and wild places may not survive the next few decades unless they pay their way by contributing to the increased material wealth of Africans. South Africa, by pioneering various forms of private wildlife ranching, is showing that profit-motivated wildlife stewardship can increase wildlife numbers, help threatened species and bring new wealth to rural landowners. If not properly structured and governed, however, the industry can also break up ecosystems, genetically contaminate wild species and exacerbate social inequality. The continent — the world, perhaps — stands to benefit if governments and conservationists pay careful attention to this business, rapidly evolving over millions of acres on the southern tip of Africa.


Credits

Edge is the multimedia storytelling platform of Ensia, an independent, nonprofit magazine presenting new perspectives on environmental challenges and solutions to a global audience.

Story – Adam Welz
Adam Welz is a writer/photographer/filmmaker based in Cape Town, South Africa. He often writes about wildlife and is a longtime naturalist and addicted birder. He has lived and worked on four continents and will debate you on just about anything.

Videography – Adam Welz

Additional videography – Walter Neser

Page Development – Dustin Carlson
Dustin Carlson is the lead web developer for Ensia.

Graphic Design  Sean Quinn
Sean Quinn is the graphic designer for Ensia

Editing and Project Oversight – David Doody
David Doody is the senior editor for Ensia.

Photo Research and Design – Todd Reubold
Todd Reubold is the publisher, director and co-founder of Ensia.

Proofreading – Mary Hoff
Mary Hoff is the editor in chief of Ensia.

Fact Checking – Andrew Urevig
Andrew Urevig is a communications assistant for Ensia.

Photo Credits
All photos by Adam Welz unless otherwise noted


 

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