At first, I put it down to the February heat. Somewhere between Graaff-Reinet and Cradock in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, I spotted a pair of Sable Antelope — their elegant scimitar horns unmistakable — grazing next to the road. It’s not uncommon to see springbok or kudu in this otherwise featureless expanse of South Africa’s semi-desert Karoo region, but sable were long a near-endangered species confined to the great wilderness areas. Until now.
A fast-maturing commercial game farming industry is offering South Africa a rare economic model that is creating better-paying jobs, bringing profits and allowing traditional farmers in marginal agricultural areas to transition to a future less vulnerable to climate change. All while also aiding conservation by bringing exotic species back from the brink of extinction and contributing to genetic diversity within species.
A sharp rise in prices fetched by prime breeding stock — mainly buffalo and rare antelope — in 2010 led to a flood of farmers and investors across the country entering an industry that till then had never attracted similar hype. President Cyril Ramaphosa sold three white-flanked impalas for $2.6 million in 2014, when he was vice president. The price bubble burst in 2017, halving since then, and “causing some speculators to get out,” says Peet van der Merwe, professor at the School for Tourism Management at the North-West University at Potchefstroom. But by then, the model had revealed its potential.
For conservation to work in Africa, communities have to reap the benefits.
Wiaan van der Linde, Wildlife Ranching South Africa
Today, South Africa has around 12,000 game ranches where there were just three in the 1960s. Game farming, which involves rearing animals for hunting, tourism and venison, is bringing in more money through hunting each year. The average local hunter’s annual spend has increased from R39,000 ($2,600) in 2015 to R58,000 ($3,800) in 2017, according to van der Merwe’s research, which shows that foreign hunters are spending more too. Between 2013 and 2016, the economic contribution of trophy hunting grew from R1.2 billion ($78 million) to nearly R2 billion ($130 million). Game farms create three times as many jobs as the domesticated livestock farms they usually replace. Salaries are on average 5.5 times higher.
And there are more wild animals in South Africa now than at any time in the last century. Sable numbers have risen from 3,000 in 2001 to at least 40,000 today, estimates Wiaan van der Linde, deputy president of Wildlife Ranching South Africa, a nonprofit that represents the industry. The numbers of the endangered roan antelope have risen from 1,000 to 7,000 in this period. In all, van der Merwe estimates that South Africa today has around 20 million head of game.
“Conservation can never be a primary business goal, but it can definitely be a positive outcome,” says van der Linde. “For conservation to work in Africa, communities have to reap the benefits.”
In 2010, South Africa’s economy was booming — reaching its peak in 2011 — and with game prices growing steadily, outsiders to the industry saw an opportunity. As they raced into the industry, prices skyrocketed in a manner not dissimilar to the Bitcoin surge of 2017. By early 2017, that bubble burst. But while the thought of quick money may have attracted speculators, there are longer-term advantages of game farming. When it comes to soil and water protection, genetic diversity and food security, game farming beats other forms of agriculture hands down. Recent South African studies have shown that game is more resistant to global warming than livestock. And even though the number of local “biltong” hunters (biltong is South Africa’s mouthwatering take on jerky) is holding steady at around 200,000 a year, game farmers who have diversified into hunting, tourism and meat production are earning more per customer than in 2015.
Take van der Linde, for instance. He started out in 1998 in the hot, arid Kimberley region with a mix of cattle and game. Then, in 2008, he switched to his game farming business, Wintershoek Wild, exclusively and is now involved in all sectors of the industry, from producing venison to taxidermy. Wintershoek owns lodges where international trophy hunters (86 percent of whom come from the United States) stay and others that cater to photographic safaris. “If we were just in breeding, we would be in big trouble now,” says van der Linde.
Wynand de Jager, who has a smaller operation to the southeast of Johannesburg, relies on five streams of revenue: game farming together with livestock, apples, soya and maize. He initially started game farming to host overseas hunting clients but decided to get into breeding too when he “saw how much money people were making.” Since the bubble burst, he has “kept steady” by leveraging his strategic location two hours from the international airport to attract foreign hunters who want to tick some last species off their lists before returning home.
Ecotourism is also a growing industry. The total number of overseas visitors to South Africa (80 percent of whom engage in some kind of wildlife tourism) increased by 7.2 percent from 2016 to 2017.
Of course, the industry is not immune to shocks. Domestic tourism has fallen off, with overnight trips dropping from 45 million in 2015 to 43 million in 2016. Since it was blacklisted by the EU in 2011, the country’s venison industry is struggling. One venison exporter told me he has switched to ostriches; others are shifting their focus to the African, Asian and local markets. Van der Merwe is hopeful that a proposed change in abattoir legislation will give the industry a boost, although he admits that EU approval is probably a long way off.
But fundamentally, South Africa’s conservation model is the best in Africa, argues Canadian wildlife biologist Shane Mahoney in the 2011 documentary The South African Conservation Success Story. He likens it to a “robust and sturdy wooden stool [that] rests on three legs”: the public sector, the private sector and the free market economy, which determines the economic value of wildlife.
What’s also now sturdy is South Africa’s game farming industry, which after ups and downs has settled into a seemingly sustainable model that brings in profits while serving an ecological purpose. “If it pays, it stays,” is van der Linde’s mantra. And it is paying.
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