Better Bred Than Dead

Published: 
Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Is wildlife breeding an acceptable conservation strategy?

black rhinoceros transported by helicopter
A black rhino is flown to an undisclosed location in South Africa in hopes of establishing a viable breeding population. Copyright: Pete Oxford 

Wildlife breeding raises many pivotal questions and concerns. Are wildlife breeders interfering with nature? To what extent is the practice justified as a legitimate conservation tool? And to what extent can we condone modern techniques of genetic manipulation and even potential de-extinction of species using emergent DNA technologies? All of these issues revolve around questions of “wildness” and traditional views of conservation, which are increasingly being challenged in this Anthropocene era, in which human activity dominates over nature.

South Africa is a world leader in endangered species breeding. The country’s experience dates back to 1837, when Alexander van der Byl enclosed an area of about 6,000 acres on his farm near Bredasdorp in the Cape region to protect a herd of 27 bontebok. Without Mr. van der Byl’s intervention, the bontebok would most likely have met the same fate as the blaubok, a smaller relative of the roan and sable antelopes that was exterminated by hunters in the late 18th century in the same area.

Two other examples of South African species that were reduced to single populations are the Cape mountain zebra and the southern white rhino. In both instances, the species had become confined to a single state-owned protected area in which their numbers could increase through natural breeding. But subsequent expansions relied on a more strategic approach to establish new, genetically viable founder populations in additional areas of suitable habitat, with the cooperation of private landowners. Other examples from around the world include Przewalski’s horse, Père-David’s deer, the American bison, and the Arabian oryx.

Whereas wildlife breeding efforts such as van der Byl’s bontebok initiative and white rhino protection in South Africa’s Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park may have started as a passive activity, the gradual emergence of new technologies that allowed sedation, translocation, and other genetic and veterinary interventions has led to an increasingly sophisticated suite of options.

Mark Stanley Price, former chair of the IUCN’s Reintroductions Specialist Group, played a key role in returning the Arabian oryx to the wild. In “Fall of the Wild,” a recent article he co-authored with antelope specialist David Mallon, Stanley Price argues that most animal populations today are subject to some form of human intervention, and that rather than question whether they are “wild,” it makes more sense to consider simply whether they are managed “lightly” or “intensively.” According to Yolan Friedmann of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, many large mammal species in South Africa effectively exist under fairly intensive management, especially those that are rare and endangered.


The spectacular growth of South African game numbers since the 1960s is well documented, including the recovery of threatened species such as white rhino, black wildebeest, and roan and sable antelope—largely thanks to the efforts of private breeders.

Mallon and Stanley Price point out that the question of wildness is not just of theoretical interest; it has practical implications for international agreements such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and Convention on Biological Diversity, as well as for meeting objectives under national legislation and monitoring by the IUCN’s Red List. They cite the example of the Arabian oryx, whose upgrade from “extinct” in the 1970s to “vulnerable” in 2011 has drawn criticism, as most of the animals now survive in fenced enclosures under active management. They share Friedmann’s observation that most South African wildlife ranching takes place in fenced enclosures and note that regarding these situations as “non-wild” would have massive implications for Red-List assessments.

The spectacular growth of South African game numbers since the 1960s is well documented, including the recovery of threatened species such as white rhino, black wildebeest, and roan and sable antelope—largely thanks to the efforts of private breeders. Apart from the issue of enclosure, conservationist concerns also relate to the use of non-native subspecies such as the roan and sable antelopes from other parts of Africa and the introduction of species such as nyala and blesbok to areas outside their historical ranges.

To what extent should we be concerned about the genetic purity and historical ranges of species, especially when we have already modified them so much? This question is especially relevant in Africa, where projected forecasts of human population and economic growth—coupled with needs of food security—suggest that the pressure on wildlife will soon intensify. It is also instructive to look at examples of the addax, dama gazelle, and scimitar oryx— antelope species known collectively as the “three amigos.” These species were mostly exterminated from their home ranges in North Africa for food by hungry locals during times of civic unrest. Off-site commercial breeding for trophy hunting in Texas has provided a hedge against extinction for these species and provides a possible source for reintroduction, but remains controversial in the United States and elsewhere.

White rhinos are being bred in China, and there are proposals to move some rhinos to Australia and Texas for breeding and safe-keeping. Does this make more sense than applying further intensive and assisted breeding strategies within southern Africa? And to what extent can we accept that motivations for breeding are not based solely on pure “conservation” goals, but also the commercial potential of tourism viewing, trophy hunting, and production of commodities such as rhino horn?

Opinions on such questions will vary widely between animal welfarists, conservationists, and commercial wildlife breeders. But there is no doubt that wildlife breeding will continue to play a vital role in both species conservation and the broader land-use economy.

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PERC Research Fellow Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes is a sustainability economist, with unique experience and understanding of the role of markets for biodiversity conservation.For the past 25 years, he has been actively involved in various private conservation initiatives, starting as a financial manager of a private game reserve in South Africa. Mike...
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