SCIENCE SNIPPETS:

THE ROLE OF SOUTH AFRICAN PRIVATE WILDLIFE RANCHES IN CONSERVATION

Within South Africa, approximately 20 million hectares of land are dedicated to wildlife ranching. Wildlife ranches can be defined as areas of private land that use wildlife-based activities for income generation. In a recently published paper co-authored by EWT scientists*, the owners and managers of 226 wildlife ranches were interviewed to discover the potential for species conservation hidden within South Africa’s game ranches.

The EWT found that across the 226 wildlife ranches studied, a total of 40 different wild mammalian herbivore species was found to be present, with an average of 15 species found on each ranch. Mammalian herbivores comprised Artiodactyla (including antelopes, giraffes and warthogs), Perissodactyla (zebras and rhinos) and elephants. Among these, most properties had at least one threatened species and at least three species brought in from other areas (i.e., extralimital species that were moved outside of their natural range). Surprisingly, wildlife ranches had higher species richness and more threatened species per hectare than some protected areas such as national parks and game reserves. The number of species presents increased proportionally with the size of the property.

The ranches offering trophy hunting as an activity also had high herbivore species richness but lower numbers of threatened species than those ranches simply conducting ecotourism activities. However, wildlife ranches that focused on a combination of both ecotourism and trophy hunting contained more herbivore species overall.

In total, the study estimated that South Africa’s game ranches contain between 4.66 and 7.25 million herbivores. This is important as it represents one of the few examples on earth where indigenous mammal populations are thriving and demonstrates how sustainable use can lead to rewilding. For example, the Cape Mountain Zebra’s Red List status was Vulnerable in the 1930s, and, as a result of the population increases within South African wildlife ranches, their status has improved to Least Concern.

As beneficial as these ranches are, they are not without their own conservation issues. Game ranches are usually surrounded by fences, which do not permit free movement. This results in landscape fragmentation and can impede gene flow. The occurrence of species outside their natural range can lead to hybridisation (defined as the breeding of two similar but different species). Hybridisation has been well documented in the threatened Bontebok breeding with Blesbok. This has resulted in over two-thirds of all Bontebok populations containing Bontebok-Blesbok hybrids. This is dangerous as it could allow for the complete loss of genetically-pure Bontebok individuals.

The authors concluded that South African game ranches have proven to be strongholds for many of the indigenous herbivore species, including threatened species.

* Taylor, W. A., Child, M. F., Lindsey, P. A., Nicholson, S. K., Relton, C., & Davies-Mostert, H. T. (2021). South Africa’s private wildlife ranches protect globally significant populations of wild ungulates. Biodiversity and Conservation, 1-25.