There seems to be a developing trend in these days of supply and demand to satisfy the “demand” for wildlife products by supplying them from a “ranched” situation. By that I mean species raised on what are essentially farms under controlled conditions to be able to be sold more cost-effectively onto the market. But for some species, ranching has been spun into the realm of conservation. Seductive as it might be to some, this has to be nipped in the bud.
There is nothing new about the concept of ranching really, we have been doing it for many thousands of years. What we think of as domestic animals like cows and pigs and sheep and goats and minks and rabbits and chickens and turkeys … you get the point….were all wild in the past and we developed the means of harvesting more efficiently by farming rather than having to run around hunting them. The farming trend has continued to lots of other species these days, just think of salmon and prawns and pheasants and quail and bison and reindeer and red deer.
Wildlife ranching is pervasive.
In the USA and South Africa and Kenya and Botswana and Zimbabwe and Zambia at least there is an established and/or growing trend to establish game ranches catering to the supply of wildlife for ungulate (and ostrich) trophy hunting and/or meat. In fact, game ranching (of herbivores) is seen as environmentally friendly since wildlife is not as destructive of vegetation as cows or goats. In addition, benefits accrue to the ranchers as the product can be sold for higher prices than domestic stock (a cow has yet to be displayed in any trophy room as far as I know), and needs less veterinary care as wildlife mostly shrugs off diseases like bluetongue, African horse sickness, theileriosis, trypanosomiasis, and foot-and mouth. Free-range and no hormones in the meat are an added incentive to the consumer.
But is wildlife ranching conservation?
So far so good. But there is an ugly side of wildlife ranching that has been raising its head. Some examples:
- To make up for the shortage of a wild tiger supply sadly exhausted by extensive poaching, there are many tiger breeding facilities these days in China. These tigers are not bred out of conservation concern, but rather for financial gain to supply the tiger bones or claws or whiskers or noses or whatever else excites the Asian traditional medicine market. Oh, and bears are also bred to supply a steady stream of bear gall bladder juice so important to remedy a variety of ills, and when the bears die, perhaps bear paws are sold to restaurants.
- To make up for the shortage of wild lions and the high cost of hunting the few that remain, South African breeders in particular have readily volunteered their services to offer canned lion hunts. Canned lion hunting is supposedly frowned upon by South African society, but perhaps they were too interested by watching re-runs of TV soaps to take action early. It seems prominent NGOs in SA were also watching TV rather than attending. Now there are over 4,000 lions in captive breeding programmes to supply the hunting trade. Canned lion hunting has not reduced the demand for wild lion hunting, but made cut-rate trophies available to those who cannot afford a high-priced safari. In another commercially valuable scheme, genetically aberrant “white lions” have been sold to hunters and zoos all over the world. To achieve a white lion from the very few individuals displaying the trait, breeding has to be highly selective, and thus all pure white lions are heavily inbred. Nobody seems to protest this artificial breeding.
- Staying with South Africa for a while, the private ranchers have been hailed as making great strides to save white rhinos. These rhinos were in dire straits, and the SA authorities allowed them to come into private ownership. Such owners could earn considerable income by offering their stock to trophy hunters, thus making white rhinos attractive to be raised on game farms. The result? There are now something like 17,000 white rhinos in South Africa, hailed as a great “conservation success”, and from 2000 to 2009 South Africa exported 1381 white rhino trophies according to CITES. Most of these went to the USA (552), but since 2003, 193 trophies have been exported to … Vietnam. It is the only trophy animal the Vietnamese are interested in, and you can be sure those horns end up as powder for the traditional medicine trade. In 2010, over 330 rhinos were poached in South Africa, both from ranches and nationally protected areas. Some prominent poachers have been arrested, and perhaps not surprisingly include a game farmer, veterinarians, and professional hunters.
- Moving over to the UK, a well-known safari park recently made news for allowing trophy hunts of Pere David’s deer, a species extinct in the wild (though reintroduction to their native China has been attempted). Trophy hunters seem especially fond of bagging such extremely rare species - too bad there was not a scheme to “save” dodos and quaggas and bluebucks by ranching them.
- Our highly effective and on the ball regulatory agencies like CITES allow trade of wild species from ranched sources under less stringent regulations than wild exports. I would invite CITES officials, if they can be motivated to suffer the inconvenience, to inspect the capacity of Vietnamese farms that supposedly legally supply the python meat market to the world. Go have a look and evaluate whether all those pythons are actually raised or whether there is a wonderful opportunity to catch wild pythons and disguise them as farmed pythons for export?
Ranching is commercial utilisation
So what do we think about the farming of wildlife? We seem supportive of being able to buy salmon and prawns and deer at better prices than if they were harvested from the wild. Game ranchers are happy to provide wildlife products at reduced costs to clients wanting trophies and meat.
But please, let’s call it what it is – utilization. And let’s please not get this all confused with conservation. Just because there are many more white rhinos now than before, and something like 20% of remaining lions in Africa are involved in captive breeding programmes to supply the hunting trade, this does not mean we are conserving those species. The demand for their wild relatives remains high and unabated. In fact, traditional medicine values a wild animal much higher than a ranched one, just like we pay a premium for a wild salmon rather than a farmed fish. Conservation should have loftier goals than breeding more animals of a species in any artificial situation. Conservation is about doing the best we can to ensure wild animals continue to live in the environment in which they belong. There is no commercial substitute.
Picture credit: http://www.african-safari-pictures.com/white-rhino-pictures.html
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