The future of game ranching

Does the future of game ranching depend on pure conservation principles, pure economics, or a blend of the two? Roelof Bezuidenhout explores the issue.

Game ranchers claim that their business acumen, more than any other factor, has powered the industry for the past 50 years. Their efforts, they argue, gave wild animals – even common types – real value, first as trophies and later as breeding stock.
Speaking at the recent SA Wildlife Management Association congress, Lizanne Nel of the South African Hunters and Game Conservation Association (SAHGCA) pointed out that local hunters had contributed R6,3 billion to the economy in 2013.

Game auctions had raised more than R960 million, with colour variants accounting for 16% of turnover, and rare species and trophy animals for more than 80%. But there is growing concern that what some describe as irresponsible breeding goals based on financial returns could backfire in the long run.

At the same congress, Ian Rushworth of KZN Wildlife said the rapid transformation of wildlife ranching from an extensive, supplementary income source to an intensive, profit-driven enterprise was eroding its conservation role. He stressed that the increases in game values were threatening rather than supporting conservation goals.

The transformation of natural vegetation as a result of overstocking and fencing is one of game ranching’s negative impacts. In addition, selective breeding for certain traits and mixing previously isolated populations, could have serious genetic implications. Rushworth contended that current breeding methods were often the opposite of those used in conservation breeding programmes, and the animals produced could be less fit for life in free-ranging populations. He warned that the rapid rise in prices of domesticated, indigenous wildlife, could be artificially inflated and transitory, while the environmental consequences might be permanent.

Will the bubble burst?
Rushworth’s view of the prices of domesticated game echoes that of Chris Niehaus, CEO of SAHGCA. Speaking at another occasion, he said the boom in the prices of certain game species was similar to the financial bubbles of the Tulip mania of 1636/1637, the South Sea in 1771, commodities in the 1970s, ostriches in the early 1990s, and the recent sub-prime mortgage crisis in the USA. Financial bubbles develop when the price at which assets trade is based on past financial performance and not in-depth analysis of their fundamental value. When new investors dry up, prices collapse.

Big cat trade
At the congress, Kelly Marnewick, Grant Beverley and Derek van der Merwe of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Carnivore Conservation Programme, also examined the big cat trade. They conceded that game ranching could benefit carnivore conservation by increasing the available prey base and habitat, but said that heavy commercialisation of the industry had had an unintended impact on large carnivores. Carnivores with high conservation value were in danger of being killed near protected areas due to their predation of artificially bred antelope that had commercial worth, but little conservation value. Breeding lions in captivity, keeping leopards in semi-captive conditions, trading in captive and wild cheetah, and leopard trophy hunting was also problematic, as preservation was often confused with conservation.

Domestication and disease
Dr Frans Radloff of the Department of Biodiversity & Conservation at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology suggested that most large game animals on game ranches were either already semi-domesticated or fully domesticated livestock. The level of domestication depended on how much artificial selection pressures differed from those in the wild, and how strongly that affected the phenotypic traits of the species.

According to Radloff, two of the greatest threats to African wildlife were the following: as yet unknown diseases manifesting in intensively bred game and spilling over to their counterparts in the wild, and a change in perception of wildlife that could ultimately affect game viewing and hunting. Prof Paul Grobler of the Department of Genetics at the University of the
Free State said that breeding rare phenotypes was sometimes based on small founder numbers, with loss of genetic diversity, reduced fitness and inability to adapt to changing environmental conditions.

Mixing local and introduced populations may result in combining genotypes adapted to diverse environmental conditions, and this could lead to outbreeding depression. As a counter argument, he said that these practices should not be evaluated using theory from conservation genetics. The approach should rather be based on the successes achieved in breeding domestic animals.

Supporters of this view believe that selective breeding based on SA Stud Book principles could in fact contribute to the conservation of game species’ wider genetic diversity. Similarly, outbreeding depression in conservation genetics forms the basis of outbreeding enhancement or heterosis in cattle. In this case, crossbreeding of widely differing strains results in improvements in fitness.

In summary, Grobler cautioned that the consequences of intensive and selective breeding should be carefully examined, using case studies and simulations, as there was still much speculation without sound scientific backing.

Email Roelof Bezuidenhout at [email protected].