How drought and a dentist wrecked SA’s wildlife market
Wildlife prices are tumbling in SA as game breeders are squeezed by restrictions imposed on trophy hunting following the killing of the lion, known as Cecil, in 2015, and as the worst drought on record forces farmers to sell animals. The average price of a buffalo bull fell 71% to R95,704 in 2016 and is now a fraction of the record R2.1m set in 2013, according to auction house Vleissentraal.
"There has been an onslaught on the trophy hunting industry and that has fed through to prices," said Peet van der Merwe, a professor of wildlife and tourism at North West University. "The drought has also hurt farmers, many of whom had to sell stock."
The collapse marks the end of four years of skyrocketing values for South African wildlife, which is often specially bred for bigger horns or coloured coats. The practice has been criticised by environmentalists and even some hunters for what they see as unnaturally tampering with the gene pool.
The boom in prices from 2011 to 2014 was driven by growth in trophy hunting and investment from wealthy individuals, including luxury-goods billionaire Johann Rupert and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. Some farmers also switched from cattle to game.
That all changed in 2015. SA experienced its worst drought since records began in 1904, making feed more expensive, while US dentist Walter Palmer provoked worldwide outrage by illegally killing a 13-year-old lion in Zimbabwe, known for his striking black mane.
After the death of the lion, who was part of an Oxford University research project, the US, France, the Netherlands and Australia tightened restrictions on importing animal carcasses, while United Airlines and Delta Air Lines banned customers from transporting hunting trophies.
Prices of specially bred colour variants also fell last year. The average golden wildebeest bull sold for R395,363, a drop of 61% from 2015, according to Vleissentraal. Black impala rams plunged 78%, and even lower value, so-called plains game, such as kudu, tumbled 64%.
Prices are also being affected by expanded supply of farmed wildlife. Seeing the high prices, many cattle farmers converted to game between 2012 and 2014, temporarily pushing up demand for breeding stock before some were forced to sell during the drought, according to Van der Merwe.
Still, the value of the costliest buffalo increased in 2016. South African businessman Peter Bellingham paid R44m for a 25% share in Horizon, Africa’s biggest horned, tuberculosis-free buffalo last February. This values Horizon at a record R176m, surpassing the R40m paid for a buffalo named Mystery by a group that included Rupert in 2013.
Horizon’s horns are nearly 140cm wide, compared with Mystery’s 135cm. Breeders in SA, the biggest market for the animals, are willing to pay record prices for the genes that could increase their herd’s horn span, which is desirable to hunters.