Better Bred than Dead

Monday, November 3, 2014
Sable Antelope, one of South Africa's conservation success stories
The issue of wildlife breeding raises many interesting questions and concerns. To what extent is breeding intervention a legitimate wildlife conservation tool? Are wildlife breeders interfering with nature and to what extent is this justified? To what extent can we condone modern techniques of genetic manipulation and even potential de-extinction of species using emergent DNA technologies? All these issues revolve around questions of ‘wildness’ and traditional views of conservation, which are increasingly being challenged by the circumstances of the Anthropocene era, in which human activity dominates over nature.
Alexander van der Byl may have been South Africa’s first effective wildlife breeder. In 1837, he enclosed an area of around 6,000 acres on his farm ‘Nacht Wacht’ near Bredasdorp to protect a herd of 27 bontebok. Without Mr. van der Byl’s intervention the bontebok would most likely have followed the fate of the blaubok to extinction – the latter species, a smaller relative of the roan and sable antelopes, was exterminated by hunters in the late Eighteenth Century in its natural range in the South-Western Cape.
Two other South African examples of species that were reduced to a single population are the Cape mountain zebra and the southern white rhino. In both instances they were initially confined to a single 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 natural habitat. Examples include Przewalski’s horse, Père-David’s deer, the American bison, and the Arabian oryx.
Whereas wildlife breeding such as van der Byl’s bontebok initiative and white rhino protection in the 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.
Dr. Mark Stanley Price is the former chair of the IUCN’s Reintroductions Specialist Group and played a key role in returning the Arabian oryx to the wild. A recent thought-provoking article he co-authored with David Mallon in the journal Oryx entitled ‘Fall of the Wild’ 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 ‘lightly’ or ‘intensively’ managed. According to Yolan Friedmann, CEO 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.
Mallon and Stanley Price point out that the question of wildness is not just of theoretical interest, but has practical implications for international agreements such as CITES and the Convention on Biological Diversity, as well as for meeting objectives under national legislation and monitoring by, for example, the IUCN’s Red List. Citing the example of the Arabian oryx, they note that it has been upgraded from ‘extinct’ in the 1970s to merely ‘vulnerable’ in 2011, but that this has drawn criticism, as most 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 – requiring some significant changes to existing records.
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, roan and sable antelope – largely thanks to the efforts of private breeders. Apart from the issue of enclosure, further concerns to conservationists relate to the use of non-native subspecies (e.g. roan and sable from other parts of Africa) and the introduction of species such as nyala and blesbok to areas outside their historical range.
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 only intensify. It is also instructive to look at examples of North African antelope species such as the addax, dama gazelle, and scimitar oryx – the “three amigos”. Researching their historical fate in their home ranges in North Africa, one finds that they were mostly exterminated for food by hungry locals during times of civic unrest. Ex situ commercial breeding for trophy hunting in Texas has provided a hedge against extinction for these species, and provides a possible source for re-introduction.
White rhinos are being bred in China and there are proposals to move animals to Australia for breeding and safe-keeping. Does this make more conservation sense than applying further intensive and assisted breeding strategies within South Africa? 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 South African land-use economy.
Check out the original article on pages 22-26 of the full issue (electronic edition at for a pictorial guide to the African wildlife discussed in this article.
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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