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S. Africa drought pressures wildlife

A drought gripping much of South Africa could have an unexpected impact of wildlife: game farmers selling wild animals instead of paying more for animal feed to maintain them.
White rhinos graze in South Africa's Thanda Game Reserve.Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

Want to buy a rhino or a buffalo? Now may be a good time.

A drought gripping much of South Africa may send the price of key crops such as maize soaring but game farmers are expected to get less for their wild animals.

Much of South Africa’s wildlife has become a commodity as former cattle ranchers and other operators grab a slice of the booming ecotourist and hunting industries.

The price of kudu, a type of antelope, and other beasts is forecast to fall because the drought is forcing game farmers to supplement the natural diet of their animals with feed grains, which in turn cost more because of the weather.

As a result, many game ranchers want to sell their stock before buyers become more scarce.

“The price of game is going to come down substantially,” said Ed Hern, owner of the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve near Johannesburg. “We’ll see this when the game auction season really kicks off in March/April.”

Smaller animals, more deaths
The drought is also reducing litter sizes of wild animals and raising mortality rates.

“Last year we were seeing litters of four or more. Now two are very common,” said Alan Williams, wildlife manager of the Thanda Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal province, as he pointed at a mother warthog and two small piglets running into the bush.

The affects of the drought can be seen at Thanda, 13,000 acres of otherwise prime game country set amid thorn trees and rocky outcrops that offer breathtaking views.

Beneath the green facade the grass is scarce, putting stress on grazing animals whose diet must be supplemented with increasingly costly alfalfa.

Rhino on the cheap
The price for white rhino -- the world’s second largest land mammal -- was already on its way down and may fall further.

Rhino prices were charging uphill and peaked around two years ago.

“Two years ago, you would pay 275,000 rand ($40,000) on average for a mature cow but now you can pay 175,000 or 200,000 rand,” said Hern, who owns eight of the animals.

“If it carries on, rhino will get even cheaper.”

Prices for other species are also coming down.

“Kudu prices fell last year because of the dry veld conditions,” said Gerhard Visser, a game farmer in the northern Limpopo province, which also suffered drought last year.

“Last year at one stage the kudu prices came down to 2,000 rand per animal from 2,700 to 3,000 rand,” he said.

The price for nyala, an elusive but majestic antelope, has fallen to 7,000 rand from 8,500 rand.

Rarer animals are seen maintaining their value.

“The really rare species like roan and sable antelope, their price won’t be influenced by the drought,” said Piet du Plessis, the head of the Northern Game Ranchers’ Association.

He also said there were limits on how far the price of more common species like impala would fall.

“If the price falls too much, the farmers will find alternatives. They can sell the meat or bring in hunters who are willing to pay a certain price,” he said.

And farmers who have lost animals will also have to begin building up their stock, though they won’t while conditions remain dry -- which means prices could surge later.

Growing industry
No one is trading game futures yet but the industry is big and estimated to be worth around $137 million a year, according to du Plessis.

It is a part of the ecotourist sector that the government is keen to expand because of its potential for job creation.

The outlook for the year ahead is tough as the drought squeezes margins and valuable animals perish in the heat.