The contribution of commercial wildlife ranching to a resource efficient, low carbon, pro-employment green economy is possibly hugely underestimated and definitely underdeveloped. For the purpose of this article, commercial wildlife ranching is defined as the management of game in a sizable game fenced system, with minimal human intervention in the form of the provision of water, the supplementation of food during periods of drought, the strategic control of parasites, and the strategic provision of health care. The strategic provision of parasite control and health care is aimed at assisting only where necessary, thus avoiding the loss of natural parasite resistance and enzootic stability to diseases.
Towards the middle of the 20th century, wildlife in South Africa had no real economic value. Rather, it was regarded as competition for livestock grazing land and as a result was reduced until many of the scarcer species were almost eradicated and only 19 bontebuck, 200 blesbuck and 30 white rhinoceros were left in South Africa. Thankfully, in 1894 government intervention lead to the establishment of statutory game reserves, although mostly on marginal land not deemed suitable for agriculture and in areas prone to tsetse fly and malaria. Nevertheless, in 1926, various national parks were established.
The economic value of wildlife has since gained momentum and garnered recognition from the state, and as of 2008 South Africa boasts more wildlife than in the past 150 years. Although just over 82% of South Africa’s total area is allocated to agriculture, only 17% of the country’s agri-land has high agri-production potential, with 80% marginal.
Generally, three times more staff members are employed on wildlife ranches than on livestock farms. The commercial wildlife ranching industry currently provides employment for more than 100,000 individuals. As an example, in the 2010 capture season, an estimated 167,440 head of game were translocated by 44 game capture companies employing estimated 1,320 staff members. In this aspect alone, the industry contributes tremendously to the upliftment of South Africa’s population, without harm to the environment.
In fact, wildlife ranching has such a positive impact on the environment that its green footprint could result in the turnaround of approximately 12 million hectares of over-grazed and degraded communal land in order to also offer a sustainable income for rural communities. There are currently more than 10,000 wildlife ranches in South Africa, of which approximately half are situated in Limpopo, 19,5% in the Northern Cape and 12,3% in the Eastern Cape, with the remainder spread across the other regions of South Africa.
The average value of South African agricultural output is lower than the world average, given the marginal agricultural condition of land. In contrast, the commercial wildlife industry has transformed 20 million hectares of marginal agricultural land into thriving land-use operations and a typical commercial game ranch generates approximately R220 per hectare in economic output, compared to an average of R80 per hectare for conventional livestock farming.
The eco-tourism industry now accounts for at least R1 billion in value added to the South African economy and its indirect multiplier effect is of a roughly similar size. The total turnover in this market segment is about R2 billion. Therefore, not surprisingly, the game ranching industry has been expanding at a rate of about 5% per annum in real terms over the past decade – and measured in terms of turnover, it has grown at an average rate of 20,3% per annum over the last 15 years. The number of commercial farmers however, for various reasons, has dropped to an alarmingly low 37 000. Game is better adapted to the marginal conditions in South Africa, and not as likely to suffer the effects of global warming as severely as domesticated livestock.
For one thing, wildlife ranching is not dependent on grain based feeds, which is a large plus point in terms of input cost advantages and the reduced reliance on the fate of other agricultural sectors. In this respect, wildlife ranching is a huge potential contributor to food security in South Africa and even abroad. During the five hunting months per annum, game meat comprises 10% of the red meat utilized in South Africa, a percentage that can definitely become significantly bigger – particularly when considering the fact that our current imports of red and white meat total approximately R4 billion per annum.
The international market for game meat is considerable. In Western Europe alone, the potential market for game meat is reliably estimated at more than 100 000 tons per annum and is growing along with the consistent increase in the demand for more organic or natural products. South Africa currently exports a mere 600 to 2 000 tons per annum, valued at approximately R60 million to R200 million. New Zealand’s export volumes of game meat is already 41 times greater than that of South Africa, and totals approximately 40 000 tons or 700 000 head at an approximate value of R2,5 billion.
However, New Zealand does not have anywhere near the diversity that South Africa has to offer, or any indigenous animals. Wildlife ranching also generates both consumptive and non-consumptive revenue streams and has an extensive game stock production base that promotes bio-diversity and conservation.
An estimated 16 million head of game are commercially owned, which by approximation is four times more than that of South Africa’s state owned parks. On average, there are 45 mammal species, 266 bird species, 43 reptile species, 17 tree species, 29 grass species and 88 other plant species per wildlife ranch where eco-tourism is practiced. In South Africa’s socio-political landscape, it is an undisputed reality that commercial wildlife ranching is about appropriate land use and rural development.
It is less about animals per se, is not a white affluent issue or a conservation- at-all-cost thing. It is about economic sustainability with a powerful green footprint. It is a land-use option that is ecologically appropriate, economically and environmentally sustainable, politically sensitive, and finally, socially just.
There is no other continent on earth that even remotely approaches the actual and potential value of southern Africa’s wildlife. If carefully managed, commercial wildlife ranching will remain the competitive edge and unique selling point of southern Africa.
Author: Dr. Gert Dry, Wildlife Ranching South Africa (published with permission)