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Wild Animals in S. Africa Reserve Are Going Once, Twice--and Gone

July 28, 2002|ANN M. SIMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HLUHLUWE UMFOLOZI PARK, South Africa -- The startled giraffes darted nervously around the open-air pen, trying to avoid the gaze of the curious humans outside. In a nearby corral, hippos huddled under the shade of a wooden canopy. Only the white rhinos refused to be cowed, striking a menacing pose in a direct challenge to any overly inquisitive passersby.

The fate of these animals, on display with a variety of other beasts at a recent game auction in this picturesque sanctuary in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, would soon be decided under the auctioneer's hammer.

Billed as the largest and most exotic pet shop in the world, the annual auction allows the province's wildlife authority to shed some of its surplus game from protected areas while offering game farm owners and collectors of so-called trophy animals a chance to stock up.

Collecting wildlife is a growing--and sometimes controversial--trend in South Africa as ranchers sell off their cattle and buy exotic herds.

Some purchase the animals to boost the potential of aesthetic and photographic tourism on their private game ranches. Others buy the animals to be hunted, capitalizing on an ever-expanding sector of the tourism industry here.

Rhinos, buffaloes and large antelopes such as nyalas and kudus are among the choice trophy animals snapped up for hunting on game ranches.

"It's like the flavor of the month," said Jeff Gaisford, a spokesman for the eco-tourism and marketing department of the KwaZulu-Natal wildlife authority. "A hell of a lot of private game reserves are being established. A lot of farmers are selling off their cattle and stocking [their farms] with game. It's driven by money and eco-tourism."

Edmond Rouillard, chairman of the Natal Game Ranchers Assn., said a dramatic decline in cattle prices in recent years spurred many farmers to move into stocking game. In addition, keeping wildlife is less labor intensive than nurturing cattle, which need to be regularly dipped for pests, immunized, fed and fenced off.

Wild animals roam freely within the vast acres of the game farms and feed off their natural habitat.

According to Theuns Eloff, head of the Center for Wildlife Economics at Potchefstroom University in the country's North-West province, the number of private game farms in South Africa has increased significantly.

In 1993, there were 3,357 such ranches in the nation, occupying about 17 million acres of land. By 2001, the number had jumped to 5,344 farms, occupying more than 27 million acres. The percentage of the country's agricultural land housing game farms, which are not part of government-owned nature reserves and national parks, rose from 8.4% in 1993 to 13.3% in 2001, Eloff said.

"It's nice driving around your ranch and seeing giraffe and zebra and whatever else you have there," said Rouillard, who owns a hunting ranch. "And it's an earner of foreign exchange, in the long run, if you have trophy animals."

A special license is required to stock game on a farm, and a so-called exemption permit is needed if wildlife is to be hunted on such ranches. A game farm must meet certain standards, including having ample acreage to allow the animals to run free.

The cost of hunting a beast ranges from $350 for an impala to $700 for a zebra, $1,000 and up for a kudu and $10,000 for a buffalo. The price tag for bagging a trophy is paid in addition to a daily fee of between $350 and $450.

Wildlife and hunting officials estimate that the industry generates about $150 million in profits each year and attracts about 5,000 foreign hunting safari tourists.

An average 10-day safari costs about $10,000, depending on the type and number of animals killed, according to representatives of the hunting industry.

The generally prohibitive price means that more tourists go on photo safaris, but hunting safaris are by far an easier way for game farm owners to make a quick profit.

Gaisford said that although the wildlife authority is often criticized for selling animals it knows will eventually be hunted, the killing of some wildlife is necessary to help manage the game population.

"If we don't sell them, we'll shoot them anyway," he said. "We have to control the number of animals in the park. So it's a double benefit [to the buyer and to us]."

At this year's auction, 389 animals were sold from the live displays. Buyers were able to scrutinize the animals in outdoor pens before viewing them on a bank of television screens set above the auctioneer's head. An additional 1,629 beasts were bought unseen from a catalog, pending the capture of the animals.

The game, which included white rhinos, hippos, giraffes, ostriches, blue wildebeests, wart hogs, zebras, nyalas and kudus, netted about $1.1 million.

The price of a white rhino averaged $22,700. One nyala went for a record $2,600, while five hippos sold for about $4,100 apiece.

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