Agri-Pulse – Rustenburg – Worldwide, there is a decline in the numbers of wildlife. Across the globe, the loss of habitat and human encroachment, pollution and illegal hunting are wiping out species. But in South Africa the trend for some animal groups is quite the opposite.
“We are seeing an increase in larger mammals, particularly herbivores. Mostly because we are following a very sustainable approach,” says Dr Andrew Taylor from the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT).
In an interview with Agri-Pulse Dr Taylor said that private wildlife ranches are playing a major role in the thriving of wildlife.
Without detracting from the critical role that national parks are playing in conservation, he had high praise for the positive achievements of the private sector. Let’s take a brief glance at the not-to-distant past of wildlife.
Around the middle of the 20th century, wildlife had limited economic value in South Africa. At best, wildlife was simply good sport and there are numerous accounts of the eradication of huge numbers of free-roaming wildlife throughout southern Africa. Plains game species were seen to compete with livestock, so animals like bontebok, blesbok, roan and sable antelope, as well as tsessebe were also slaughtered to the point that their populations numbered less than 500 individuals. In short, wildlife was sometimes seen as vermin.
In the late 1800s, the government established a few statutory game reserves on land that was not suitable for agriculture and some 30 years later, we had national parks, many of which still exist today and form the bulk of the country’s primary tourism destinations. Even these reserves only had limited wildlife populations and through exemplary conservation management strategies based on trial-and-error methods, these populations were protected and increased. But it was only once wildlife also started gaining economic value for private reserve owners and after commercial wildlife ranching was recognised and supported by the state, that the tide really started turning.
A major step in the right direction, according to Dr Taylor, was when the Game Theft Act was introduced in 1991. Part of the terms of this act was that game owners had to apply for permits – generally referred to as Exemption Permits or Certificates of Adequate Enclosure – as a way of ensuring a sustainable approach. “Since then, wildlife in South Africa has boomed,” says Dr Taylor. These private landowners also focus on increasing natural habitats for wildlife and often converting agricultural land into suitable game areas. These practices often have a significant green footprint in terms of habitat, soil restoration and biodiversity support. “Game farmers who follow good environmental procedures improve their chances of sustainability and are more likely to conserve biodiversity successfully,” Dr Taylor says. Several species - bontebok, blesbok, roan and sable antelope, tsessebe, black wildebeest as well as the leopard tortoise - have been rescued and now have a healthy and growing populations in the country. “The increase is undeniable. We are looking at numbers that were around 500 000-1 000 000; now those numbers are estimated, conservatively, between six –and ten million,” Dr Taylor concludes.