Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Is Breeding Mutants for Hunters the Way Forward?

“Hunt packages” for international clients traveling to South Africa include killing a golden gnu for $49,500, a black impala for $45,000, and a white lion for $30,000.

Is breeding mutant animals for slob hunters the way forward for African conservation?  Some say so.  Bloomberg reports that In South Africa, Ranchers Are Breeding Mutant Animals to Be Hunted:

More than 99.9 percent of all wild gnus, also called wildebeest, from the Afrikaans for “wild beast,” have dark coats. But this three-year-old golden bull and his many offspring are not an accident. They have been bred specially for their unusual coloring, which is coveted by big game hunters.

These flaxen creatures are the latest craze in South Africa’s $1 billion ultra-high-end big-game hunting industry. Well-heeled marksmen pay nearly $50,000 to take a shot at a golden gnu — more than 100 times what they pay to shoot a common gnu. Breeders are also engineering white lions with pale blue eyes, black impalas, white kudus, and coffee-colored springboks, all of which are exceedingly rare in the wild.

“We breed them because they’re different,” says Barry York, who owns a 2,500-acre ranch about 135 miles east of Johannesburg. There, he expertly mates big game for optimal — read: unusual — results. “There’ll always be a premium paid for highly-adapted, unique, rare animals.”

…No one disputes that there’s money to be made in rare big game. Africa Hunt Lodge, a U.S.-based tour operator, advertises “hunt packages” to international clients traveling to South Africa that include killing a golden gnu for $49,500, a black impala for $45,000, and a white lion for $30,000.

Of course, the story is more complex than some might allow.

The simple truth is that big game hunting parks in South Africa are one reason so much low-production agricultural land has been returned to wild game and sensible and sound environmental management.

A drive around York’s spread reveals little evidence of its former life as an intensive crop farm growing potatoes, corn and peanuts. Long native grass flickers in the wind as the gnus graze peacefully. The only signs of man are the electric fences York uses to separate his herds. Since he took over the farm, jackals, bat-eared foxes, and caracals, as well as troops of monkeys, have appeared on the land.

“Previously this was crop land with pesticides, chemicals, very few trees, no wildlife,” he says. “Now there are hundreds of wildebeest where there were none for 100 years. The color variants are paying for it.”
The country now has about 22 million large mammals, including lions, buffalo and many species of antelope, three-fourths of which live on private ranches. Hunting ranches have been widely credited with saving the rhinoceros from extinction in the 1960s, when there were just an estimated 575,000 large wild animals in the country.

“Not a single country in the world has seen such a large increase in animal numbers over the last 50 years,” said Wouter van Hoven, an emeritus professor at the University of Pretoria. “It’s an incredible success story.”

Of course, the issue of raising mutants for sport hunting is a different issue than sport hunting alone, and some conservationists object to loading any gene pool with defect, though this small point is easily over extended by dangerous idiots who actually object to all farming and all hunting of any kind:

Despite the increase in populations of native species, conservationists deride the methods used by York and his fellow breeders. “What’s happening now is farming,” says Ainsley Hay, manager of the Wildlife Protection Unit of South Africa’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “It’s not conservation. It doesn’t matter if you’re farming cows or impala, it’s a damaging form of land use.”

And in this case, growing numbers of animals don’t indicate conservation, she says. “A white springbok will not contribute to the springbok population because it’s a mutant.”

The NSPCA, which has sent inspectors to game farms and wildlife auctions, Hay says, most color variants would not survive in the wild. White lions get skin diseases, cancers, foot problems, and corkscrew tails. Their faces turn inward, and “white springbok variants are very prone to skin cancer,” she says. “It’s been scientifically proven that black impala are more susceptible to heat stroke.”

Notice how those last paragraphs went.

First the objection was to "farming" wildlife because that's a "damaging form of land use." and never mind if that is not only not true, but exactly wrong and the truth is the opposite of that.

Only then does the "gene pool contamination" issue get raised, and never mind if that's not actually a concern when the mutants are so rare they are going for $30,000 or more a head (and are not likely being allowed to roam in the general gene pool anyway).

And the South African SPCA is a "conservation" organization?  Since when?  No it's not, and it never has been.

The SPCA of South Africa has campaigns opposed to dog fighting, sow crates, and circuses. You cannot find hide nor hair of any link to a "wildlife protection unit" on their web site.

So, on the one side, we have a massive return of marginal agricultural land to natural habitat, a massive increased in game and non-game species across the country created by a sustainable economic model that works hand-in-hand with biologists, ecologists, and conservationists.... and on the other side we have a massive  direct mail mill organization that does not conserve land, does not employ conservation biologists, and whose own web site is focused on everything except the wildlife of the country it is in.

Chose sides accordingly.

Does that mean I don't sneer at slob hunters plunking down massive sums of money to shoot farmed mutants?


But if their money powers the economic model that protects large tracts of land and conserves herds, birds, and predators for generations to come, I am all for it.


Mary Pang said...

This reminds me of the book "Never Let Me Go", Kazuo Ishiguro . If you breed and raise a thing, can you do whatever you like with it?
I see the practicalities of it, that the land should be economically productive but something about it seems "not right". Mind you, vast tracts of the UK are carefully managed, not wild.

Peter Apps said...

Hi Patrick

This is about as tricky an issue as you can get - I have just spent a day at a symposium considering just these issues. There are no satisfying answers. But there is one very tricky question - is there any difference between the colour freaks bred by the specialist game farmers and the freak dogs in the show rings ?

PBurns said...

The main difference is that the wildlife freaks are not being used as a baseline upon which to breed a massive population of inbred animals.

The high cash value of these wildlife freaks is in their rarity. There is never any intention to make them the "core" population, or to breed very many of them. They will always be outliers buy economic design. In the case of purebred dogs, however, the goal is the exact opposite; to make the inbred freaks the core population and to make them not only common, but ubiquitous. It's not a "golden retriever" UNLESS it's inbred within a closed registry.

Peter Apps said...

The problem is that the freak lions and antelope are already very inbred - because they are rare. This is a relatively new commercial phenomenon and they are only a few generations into it, and already there are problems with teeth and skull shapes. Although the current ridiculous values are due to extreme rarity I doubt that it will stay that way - as long as the price to the customer does not decrease linearly with the number that you have, then it will always be worth having a few more, even if the price each does drop a bit.

The rewilding of agricultural land can be a good thing, but I am willing to bet that the jackals and caracals that "appeared on the land" were pretty soon the victims of lethal control - game farms with game-proof fences and high value animals are actually less tolerant of predators than livestock farms - and in SA that is saying a lot.

The huge expansion of game ranching and the consequent increase in wild animal numbers has been almost exclusively driven by meat production and recreational harvesting for meat, with a lesser input from trophy hunts. The "special needs discretely catered for" freak end of the market, despite the spectacular prices for individual animals is still only a small fraction of the total. Long may it remain so.