New ethics for a changing game

Rearing high-value game animals under intensive conditions has both pros and cons, writes Roelof Bezuidenhout.

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Since the 1970s, there has been huge growth in the wildlife industry. Some conservationists may baulk at the trend of rearing high-value game animals in small camps, but investors say it is sound business practice, and without it the industry could not have reached its current high, both in terms of economics and conservation. The motto ‘If it pays, it stays’ has expanded to ‘If it pays, take good care of it’.

Intensive game ranching
Wildlife consultant Jokl le Roux, until recently CEO of the East Cape Game Rangers Association, maintains that the idea of breeding buffalo, sable and roan antelope under intensive conditions makes sense. “Namibia’s burgeoning wildlife industry is waking up to the merits of taking special care of these animals. Game ranchers, who have worried that removing the ‘wild’ factor would put off European hunters, are now arguing that intensive systems can help put genetic quality and trophy horns back into the industry,” he says.

Breeding high- value game in smaller enclosures means that farmers can monitor animals daily, herds can be fed optimally and medicated as necessary, and genetics can be manipulated by deciding which bull is best suited to a group of cows. According to Le Roux, this is more difficult in extensive conditions. “On ranches of 5 000ha and bigger, it’s impossible to keep tabs accurately of population numbers, let alone mortalities or reproduction rates,” he says.

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With hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of rands being paid for some specimens, the financial implications of loss through careless management can be enormous.

Supply meets demand
Turning to the possible oversupply of high-value game, Le Roux points out that international hunters are back in the field after years of recession. “Some of the big outfitters in Namibia are fully booked and locally the weaker rand encourages clients to visit South Africa,” he says.

Neil Dodds, who breeds high-value game at Jansenville in the Eastern Cape, agrees that the market is dictated by hunting demand. “As long as there are hunters, the game industry will thrive. “As far as hunting animals bred in captivity goes, most American hunters would be happy to shoot a world-record buffalo bred from a special breeding programme. “The conservation benefit is as clear as the economic benefit. The game farmer is protecting dwindling African wildlife populations and preserving areas under threat from human expansion,” he says.

It seems that there will be a trade-off between the organic, wild ‘African Safari’ brand, in which animals survive under natural conditions, including droughts and disease outbreaks, and intensive ranching systems, where genetic diversity could be compromised but which could play an as-yet unquantified role in the future survival of wildlife species. Some ranches will take the new route, while others will hold on to a more purist approach. There appears to be room for both.

Captive game industry regulation
Further regulation for the game meat industry could lead to domestication of antelope. This has happened in New Zealand, where reindeer are produced under farming conditions, the meat is fully traceable and supplies are guaranteed. The ethics of intensive game ranching are already under scrutiny, due to the captive lion breeding industry and associated canned hunting. And questions about the effectiveness of trophy hunting as a conservation tool have also been raised, according to Dr Peter Lindsay of the Mammal Research Institute at the University of Pretoria’s department of zoology.

“There are serious objections to raising animals specifically to be killed by hunters but also to hunting for sport,” he says. “Attitudes towards trophy hunting of lions are widely divergent, with polar opinions held by the hunting industry and animal welfare organisations. Mainstream conservation organisations occupy a middle ground.”

Some trophy hunting organisations have tried to distance themselves from canned hunting. For example, Rowland Ward refuses to admit canned lion trophies into its record books, while Safari Club International differentiates between lions hunted behind fences in South Africa and Namibia and free-range lions.

“My research suggests that while the captive-bred lion hunting industry in South Africa has grown rapidly, the number of wild lions hunted in other African countries has declined,” says Lindsay. “In 2009, a total of 833 lion trophies were exported from South Africa; in 2010, the figure was 682. This was more than double the combined export from other African states.
“There has been an increase in the export of lion bones from South Africa with at least 645 bones or sets of bones exported in 2010. Such trade could stimulate demand for bones from wild lions or other wild cats, which would be problematic.”

Other conservation issues arising from the captive-bred lion hunting industry include the probability that the genetics of captive animals are manipulated. Lindsay says that selective breeding of lions to produce larger trophies would have a negative conservation impact if those animals were allowed to mix with wild populations.

“All in all, canned lion hunting is a reprehensible practice with many ethical issues. But banning canned hunting in South Africa could have wider implications than simply stimulating demand for wild lion safaris elsewhere in Africa, where there is a need for widespread and comprehensive reforms to make sure that harvests don’t exceed sustainable levels,” he says.

Hunting and conservation
Elevated demand for wild lion hunting could have either positive or negative implications for the conservation of wild lions inside and outside South Africa. There could be negative conservation consequences where lion hunting is poorly regulated or quotas are too high. Lion off-takes are already excessive in parts of Cameroon, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

There could also be positive results. Lions are the most expensive animals to hunt, other than rhinos and elephants with exceptional tusks. Further price increases would make the species very valuable and create strong incentives for maintaining populations retaining wildlife-based land uses. Such incentives, maintains Lindsay, could have a marked impact in areas where people living with lions benefit from the hunting of the species.

But he points out that although some people have tried to justify captive-bred lion hunting on the grounds that it may reduce pressure from wild hunts, there is a counter-argument. “This is that canned hunting could lead to less demand and reduced prices for wild hunts and ultimately reduce incentives for conservation in other African countries,” he says.

Ideally the number of lions that are hunted should not be determined by price, but conservation considerations. “If captive-bred lion hunting were ever prohibited, demand for wild lion hunts could lead to elevated off-takes with negative impacts on wild populations,” he explains. “However, if off-takes of wild lions were held constant or reduced through effective regulation of quotas and age restrictions on trophies, increased demand could raise the price of wild lion hunts and strengthen financial incentives for lion conservation.”

The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.