Johannesburg - South Africa is conducting a scientific study into the growing practice of breeding so-called colour variant animals such as golden gnus, black impala and white kudu.
The study by the Scientific Authority of South Africa will help the government decide whether to regulate the industry, the Pretoria-based Department of Environmental Affairs said in an emailed response to questions. Selective breeding of previously wild animals for colour and horn length has drawn criticism from conservationists and hunting groups.
“The DEA does not regard the intentional breeding of animals for specific traits such as colour coats as a conservation benefit,” the department said. “Whether it is a threat to conservation would depend on the size and genetic make-up (genetic diversity) of the population into which the colour morphs are introduced.”
Rare-coloured animals, or those with unusually large horns such as specially-bred buffaloes, have become big business in South Africa, attracting record prices at auctions in the past three years, causing more farmers to switch from cattle to breeding wildlife, pushing up prices even further. The practice is part of the country’s game ranching industry, which is worth R12bn a year and growing at 10% annually, according to Barclays Africa Group.
Mystery, a buffalo with a 53-inch horn span, was bought for R40m by billionaire Johann Rupert in 2013, while Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa sold three white-flanked impala for R27.3m last September. Impala are usually copper-coloured.
To determine whether the breeding of colour variants is detrimental to South Africa’s biodiversity, the department plans “a process of national dialogue,” it said.
“The outcome of the national dialogue, as well as a scientific report on this matter that is currently being compiled by the Scientific Authority of South Africa will assist to determine whether or not it will be necessary to regulate or monitor this practice,” the DEA said.
Breeders say demand from trophy hunters is behind the record prices as well-heeled marksmen from countries such as the US demand bigger and rarer game. The growth in hunting has led to record numbers of wild animals in South Africa at a time when native species have been decimated across the continent, Wildlife Ranching South Africa has said.
In 2010, the Scientific Authority said while the breeding of colour variants is a low threat to affected species, it does not benefit conservation so should not be supported.
“What we don’t really understand at the moment is whether this type of practice has any value for conserving habitat,” John Donaldson chief director of biodiversity research at the Scientific Authority said by email last month. “Does game farming with colour variants support habitat conservation even though it’s not ideal for the focal species?”
Wildlife Ranching South Africa, which represents game farmers, supports much of the research being carried out of the government. The association’s president, Peter Oberem, said game farming as a whole has benefited populations of animals as diverse as dung beetles and oxpecker birds as former farming land slowly returned to its natural form.
“We agree with the findings” of the Scientific Authority’s 2010 study, Oberem said in an interview on April 2. “We support the government in many ways.”
Hunting organisations such as the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa deny they are spurring demand for rare animals and said “potential risks” of breeding must be monitored to safeguard conservation in a statement March 19.
The record animal prices are a “bubble” as they are inflated by wealthy breeders trading between each other, Chris Niehaus, former head of the South African Hunters and Game Conservation Association, said in January.