Management techniques vary widely, with one end of the spectrum being intensive single species production systems, and the other end being extensive, free-roaming systems. Intensive systems fall under the game farming category, and generally involve high-value species such as Sable, held in small fenced camps, where they are protected from predators and provided with all their food, water and veterinary requirements.
The purpose of these systems is to produce superior animals for live game sales or trophy hunting, and breeding may be manipulated to select animals for desirable traits, such as long horns.
Extensive systems fall under the wildlife ranching category, where wildlife is given very little assistance from the landowner other than protection against poachers.
Between these management extremes are a number of intermediate management practices that fall along a continuum, including semi-intensive systems where animals are supported by regular management interventions to maintain habitat integrity and supplement the food and water supply, and lightly managed systems where properties are large enough to accommodate most ecological requirements of the wildlife, but populations may need occasional help in years of bad drought. In some instances, different landowners may join forces to form a conservancy, whereby adjacent properties remove the fences that separate them, allow wildlife to roam freely and adopt a common management plan.
In South Africa, landowners have been allowed to commercially exploit their wildlife since the 1970s, a fact that is widely credited with the huge growth of wildlife ranching in the country over the last 40 years. Starting from a handful of game farmers in those early years, wildlife ranching has grown exponentially and now incorporates>200 000 km2 of private land representing as much as 17% of South Africa’s surface area. The precise number of wildlife ranches is not known, but is thought to be between 10 000 and 15 000, while the number of wild animals living on these properties may be as high as 20 million.
There are, however, potential downsides to wildlife ranching, and there are questions about whether the industry has a positive effect on the conservation goals of South Africa and whether the land could be put to better use for the long-term benefit of the country.
The private ownership of White Rhinoceros in South Africa illustrates many of the pros and cons of wildlife ranching described above. In the late 1960s, the then Natal Parks Board started selling rhinos to private landowners, and this process has been continued by SANParks selling rhinos from Kruger National Park and other state land.
These sales have helped keep state-owned rhino populations at sustainable levels, which helps prevent over-utilisation of food resources and maintains high birth rates. The number of rhinos on private land has subsequently reached about 5 000 individuals, or one-quarter of the national herd, while the range of the species outside formally protected areas has expanded considerably.
Given the current high rate of rhino poaching in South Africa, the contribution of wildlife ranching to rhino protection may turn out to be important to the future survival of the species. On the down-side, many private populations of White Rhinos are small and isolated because they occur on small fenced properties and therefore are making negligible contributions to the conservation of wild rhinos. Others are held in intensive breeding conditions where their breeding may be manipulated, and this might disqualify them from possible future reintroduction into the wild.
Although wildlife ranching is a large and growing industry in South Africa, there is still much that we do not know about it, and this lack of knowledge puts it at a disadvantage when it comes to government support. We do not know how many wildlife ranchers there are, how much area they use, how many animals they have, how much money they contribute to the national economy, how many people they employ, and how much they could potentially contribute towards food security.
Questions about the true impacts of fencing, the potential implications of intensive breeding and the overall contribution to biodiversity conservation also need to be answered. In an attempt to deal with some of these issues, the Endangered Wildlife Trust is conducting a study investigating the contribution that wildlife ranching makes to the green economy of South Africa. To achieve this, we are trying to interview 1 000 private wildlife ranchers using a structured survey questionnaire. Wildlife ranchers of any type could make a valuable contribution to the study and to the future success of their industry, and are encouraged to participate. Please contact the author for further details.
The positive contributions made by wildlife ranching include the following:
- Large areas of land that were once used for livestock or crops now form natural or semi-natural habitat that is generally better suited to the conservation of biodiversity. This land also conserves indigenous vegetation, protects watersheds and allows degraded land to recover;
- There are now many more wild animals in South Africa than there were 40 years ago. This is in contrast to the situation in Kenya, which banned the consumptive use of wildlife on private land in the 1970s, and has subsequently experienced a 60% decline in wildlife numbers outside state protected areas;
- These animals are distributed over a much wider area than would be the case if only state-protected areas were allowed to benefit from wildlife, and this spreads the risk from ecological catastrophes and increases the chances of long-term survival of species. Wildlife ranching also provides a buffer against possible future losses of species from state-protected areas if national land policies become less favourable to conservation;
- Numbers of some threatened species have increased as a result of their inclusion on private land, including the White Rhinoceros, Black Wildebeest, Cape Mountain Zebra and Bontebok;
- There are substantial financial benefits to be gained by wildlife ranchers, with knock-on effects to other industries and the national economy;
- The large and growing industry creates > 65 000 jobs.
The potential negative aspects of wildlife ranching include the following:
- Most private wildlife ranches have game fences that prevent the free movement of animals across their natural ranges, which is problematic for the dispersal of many species, for migratory species and for species with large natural ranges, including many large predators;
- Electric fences with trip wires present lethal barriers to some species, such as pangolins and tortoises, and result in the deaths of many animals;
- Many wildlife ranchers are intolerant of predators and use lethal control measures to keep numbers down, and this has detrimental impacts on the natural functioning of ecosystems;
- Intensive breeding systems that select for traits favoured by humans, such as large horns or unusual colour morphs, may promote the breeding success of weaker individuals and thus reduce the fitness of the overall population;
- Even though wildlife numbers are high on many private wildlife ranches, the intensive breeding practices and impenetrable fencing used on some properties mean that they cannot be considered ‘wild’. This is important because it can affect the conservation status of a species (i.e. whether it is threatened with extinction), and this in turn impacts on the level of protection that the species receives from the government;
- There is a perception that wildlife ranching is a playground for the rich and does not provide many social, economic or food security benefits to South Africa. This is not conducive to a positive attitude from government.