An 18-month national study on the wildlife ranching sector of South Africa by the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), an NGO that protects southern Africa’s threatened wildlife species, found that wildlife farming as a whole benefited biodiversity in South Africa.

The study has highlighted some contentious conservation and livelihood outcomes within the industry as well.

Today’s poaching crisis that faces species such as elephants, lions and rhinos, has spurred renewed debate in the country over the effectiveness of wildlife farming (also known as captive breeding or ranching) as a strategy through which to reduce pressures on wild populations while continuing to satisfy consumer demand with legal, sustainably farmed alternatives.

Wildlife farming covers four main subsectors: live animal sales, trophy hunting, game meat production and ecotourism but it has been subject to little scientific scrutiny…until now.

The EWT survey found that wildlife ranching was being conducted on a large scale in South Africa, with an estimated 9 000 wildlife properties covering an area of approximately 17 million hectares, which is 2.2 times greater than the state-protected game parks in the country.

The number of large herbivores on all private wildlife ranches across SA was estimated at around six million animals in 2014.

This, explains lead researcher, Andrew Taylor, is a very large number and represents a ten-fold increase since the boom in private wildlife ranching started in South Africa in the 1960s.

The growth in wildlife numbers makes South Africa unusual among other African countries, where wildlife numbers have plummeted. “The figures represent a nett positive contribution to biodiversity conservation,” says Taylor.

Economic benefits

There are economic benefits too. In 2014, 225 200 live animals were sold, bringing in a revenue of US$273 million (R4,1 billion).

Over 130 000 animals were killed as trophies, netting an additional US$125 million (R1 billion). The latter figure excludes the half million animals slaughtered for the game meat industry that brought in US$56 million (R857 million) in 2014.

Overall, 65 170 permanent jobs were supported. This figure excludes temporary employees and people working in wildlife ranching who were not employed by the ranchers themselves.

Such industries include wildlife translocators, fencing businesses and taxidermists.

“Our study reiterates earlier findings that wildlife ranching is a thriving industry in South Africa and that the sustainable use of our wildlife resources can contribute important conservation, economic and social benefits to the biodiversity economy when it is practised responsibly,” says Taylor.

But…

Some studies have differing results. Femke Brandt, from the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town, also conducted research in 2014 on the lives of farm workers, and transformation of social relations in the commercial farming landscape of the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.

In an area that has historically witnessed gross inequality, her findings show that there has been no real change in the distribution of wealth between land owners and workers because of wildlife ranching.

“Farm conversions from agriculture or livestock to wildlife ranching reconfigure relations in the countryside in a manner that puts into question the potential for transformation of social relations,” she says.

“Black people are still displaced from commercial farms, in fact, more so, as farms grow bigger and labour demands shrink due to fewer labour-intensive activities.”

Brandt says that in fact fewer rural people find employment as trackers, skinners and domestic workers on game farms than they do as labourers. And if they do, the circumstances and conditions of farm work often remain shaped by paternalist and racist ideologies.

Farmworker minimum wages have been set at just US$170 (R2 602) a month and as a casual labourer on a trophy-hunting farm explained to her: “…the most important thing is at the farms, you work yourself to death… For a little bit of money and, after you get older, or you get injured, you are thrown out like an old shoe.”

These issues raise questions about the true economic and social value of trophy hunting in Africa. Furthermore, the EWT paper admitted that no study had been conducted on the corresponding economic benefits of ecotourism.

Previous studies show that, in comparison to ecotourism, trophy hunting brings in minuscule revenue into national tourist sectors.

The total hunting revenue in Africa is 1.8% of the total tourism revenue but, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNTWO), ecotourism has a return of 80% of the total tourism revenue in Africa. UNTWO raises concerns that wildlife ranching is harming the future of the ecotourism sector as the majority of tourists will not knowingly stay in a property where hunting or game meat production was conducted.

The problem with intensive breeding

Taylor further admits that there are glaring problem areas in the industry that need to be urgently addressed. He cautions that “we need to be aware that some of the trends – for example, the current trend towards more intensification – could reverse some of the good that has been done”.

The study estimated that around 6% of the area used by wildlife ranching comprises intensive breeding camps for trophy hunting high-value species such as canned lion, buffalo, roan, sable and colour variants of plains game.

According to the media statement by EWT, the issues of concern with intensification “are that the area under intensive management is increasing and we cannot say that the remaining land is indeed being managed for biodiversity conservation.”

Intensification may lead to increasing amounts of fencing, which fragments the landscape further, and may also result in breeding management practices that select animals according to human preferred characteristics rather than naturally selected traits.

The most controversial form of intensification is the practice of breeding of lions for canned hunting. In South Africa at the present time, there are almost 200 breeding facilities where lions are raised exclusively for trophy hunting.

Lions are kept in small enclosures and are habituated to humans making them easy targets for hunters.