Game ranching promotes biodiversity, conservation and rural stability.

During the past thirty years, game ranchers in South Africa have grasped the opportunities enabled by legislation to create a unique wildlife ranching industry that contributed significantly to the struggling rural economy and greatly enhanced biodiversity and the conservation of many iconic species.

Conservation benefits of ranched wildlife

It is estimated that 20 million hectares of marginal agricultural land – much of which was overgrazed by domestic animals or under crop monocultures – have been converted to game ranching with its concomitant biodiversity and conservation benefits. This is approximately three times more land than that covered by national and provincial parks (6,8 million hectares) and provides habitat to an estimated 20 million head of game, compared to the 6 million animals in state-owned parks. Private landowners were extremely successful in conserving iconic species such as the southern white rhinoceros, the bontebok, the Cape mountain zebra, sable and roan antelope. These successes have been well documented.

However, conservation is not only about iconic species – it is about biodiversity. A few examples of many are:
The once “extinct” Waterberg copper butterfly was recently spotted again and is now preserved on one of these game ranches because the environment is once again suitable for its existence.
The dung beetle population has increased and diversified significantly on game ranches with many species of the different groups of game animals – animals with course dung (rhino/elephant and zebra); animals with soft dung (buffalo/wildebeest); omnivore dung frequenters (warthog/bush pig) and carnivore dung (leopard/brown hyaena/jackal/caracal) frequenters.
The saving of the rhino from extinction has also saved a fly, the rhino botfly, (Gyrostigma rhinocerontes), from extinction. At 6 – 7 cm in length it is Africa’s largest fly. It is an obligate parasite of rhino and cannot survive if there are no rhino. These flies where recently found for the first time in centuries in the Alma Valley, Limpopo after the 1997 introduction of rhino onto Dabchick Wildlife Reserve.
The contribution made by game farmers goes further than the mere quantity of game. The quality of wildlife depends on among others, genetic integrity and diversity. Research done by Prof. Pim van Hooft of the Netherlands showed that ranchers manage the quality of the herds by exchanging and swapping out buffalo bulls among ranches. Buffalo herds on private game farms are consequently in a far better state genetically than those in most of the smaller parks in the country. In the Kruger National Park bovine tuberculosis (bTB) is decimating the herds, while those on private ranches are regularly tested to ensure they are free of bTB, foot and mouth disease, corridor disease and brucellosis. The smaller size of the Addo buffalo and the lack of tusks in female Addo elephant are both examples of the effects of hunting (selecting and killing for the bigger horned bulls) and inbreeding in the parks.

Benefits for game ranchers and the economy

Dr Peter Oberem, co-founder of the Game Ranchers Forum (GRF), said the transition of game ranching to the agricultural sector is beneficial to game ranchers, biodiversity and to wildlife conservation. “Firstly, it is important to understand that game farms operate on agricultural land, not on conservation land. Therefore, it makes sense for game ranches to fall under agriculture and for game ranchers to share in the benefits available to the broader agricultural sector.”

These benefits include tax and drought relief; levies that can be ploughed back into e.g. marketing or training; access to research funding; easier financing; and free trade. Finally, game farmers will escape the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries’ (DEFF) flawed and cumbersome 9+1 system where conflicting and often absurd permit regulations, applied in an arbitrary manner by the nine provinces, had been a hindrance in moving game anywhere.

Dr Oberem further says DEFF’s biocentric approach (where humans are regarded as a threat to the environment) does not support sustainable use of wildlife and is in conflict with the anthropocentric principles (conserving nature for humans) described in the country’s Constitution. “Where biocentrism prevails, the interests of the local communities are ignored and conservation efforts are doomed to fail,” he explained.

The GFR believes government failed in its mandate to manage the conservation areas under its authority properly, and did not enable or stimulate economic activity and sustainable use. Therefore, the onus has moved to the private sector to intervene and fulfil the functions to meet the expectation of the Green Economy Policy.

Game ranchers that are part of the GRF initiative believe the listing of wildlife species under the AIA will contribute to the four pillars of the industry, i.e. ecotourism, hunting, game meat production, and breeding. It allows the industry to reach its potential unfettered by rules made by those who do not understand the industry. The benefits of this development to both game ranchers and conservation, are:
Responsible self-regulation of the industry versus imposed regulations, rules, and norms and standards;
Protection of species’ integrity through scientifically developed standards of excellence;
Enhancing the responsibility of population management;
Establishing a database with accurate information on the number of game ranches, hectares under game ranching, numbers of animals per species, and the movement of animals;
Access to the same tax benefits, disaster and drought relief as domestic stock farmers;
Creating a better platform for research and access to funds;
Contribute to food security; and
Assist with transformation in the sector, which has been long overdue.

GRF refutes views that farmed game poses economic risks

The listing of popular wildlife species in the regulations of the Animal Improvement Act (AIA) in May 2019, was widely criticised in the media by conservation NGOs claiming that game ranching under the auspices of agriculture would have negative consequences on the integrity of species, would lead to irresponsible breeding practices and domestication of wildlife, and would pose ecological economic risks. For the past four decades, all wildlife, whether owned by private individuals or in national and provincial park, fell, incorrectly, under the jurisdiction of DEFF.

The GRF emphatically rejects alarmists’ views that the reclassification of 45 wildlife species under the same agricultural regulations as livestock is a threat to the biodiversity of South Africa’s indigenous wildlife. According to Dr Gert Dry, founder member of the GRF, these views are based on a misinterpretation of the law, resulting in flawed conclusions and preservation overreach.

Dr Dry said the notion that farmed game will pollute “wild game” is a tactic by biocentric and orthodox environmentalists in an effort to cripple the game ranching industry. “They base their arguments on assumptions included in a report compiled by a select group of environmentalists from various NGOs in 2018, which was merely an assessment of the potential risks of intensive and selective breeding of game. The content is biased and nothing more than generalised assumptions. Furthermore, the report was not peer-reviewed according to scientific norms and has no scientific standing.”

Industry to self-regulate

Dr Dry confirmed that the industry is in the process of establishing species societies to regulate the breeding of the 45 wildlife species reclassified under the AIA. These regulations will explicitly forbid any illegal, unethical and irresponsible breeding or management practices. “In fact, the draft constitutions of all species societies are identical and include standard scientific definitions on permissible and forbidden practices in game-breeding. Each society is developing species-specific bylaws to protect the integrity of species. These bylaws may not deviate from species standards as extracted from various authoritative and historic references and texts,” he explained.

In the late 20th century, the private game ranching industry was part of agriculture. When the Game Theft Act came into effect in 1991, it officially ceded legal ownership of wildlife to landowners on exempted farms and confirmed the commercial value of wildlife.

Today, the average game farmer in South Africa runs a semi-extensive ranching operation on about 2 700 hectares, while some of the larger game farms are as big as 40 000 ha. Except for a small number of specialist species breeders, more than 90% of all game farms are managed with wild game on semi-extensive ranches. “These animals are not domesticated and there is no intention or market need to domesticate farmed game at all,” Dr Dry said.

Selective breeding is a protocol of management practices and a genetic tool to improve favourable traits in the breeding of the specific animal population, e.g. choosing a male with which to breed for a period, especially to ensure genetic diversity versus inbreeding and/or increased relatedness in the herd or group. Selective breeding can be managed professionally and responsibly to mitigate loss of genetic diversity.

Consumer benefits

The GRF is developing a Game Meat Value Chain Society that will enable game production to increase consumer access to safe and healthy game meat products from reliable and legal sources. Occasional hunters will still be able to hunt for legitimate own use, just as they are doing now.

“Other expected positive outcomes include job creation in rural areas; an enabling environment for viable land reform and realistic rural development; and more opportunities for small and medium business in rural areas. Other spin-offs will depend on the creativity and ingenuity of game ranchers to diversify their game ranching operations as part of the agritourism industry,” Dr Dry concluded.




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