Buffalo horns lure billionaires

Cape Town - Jacques Malan weaves his Toyota Land Cruiser through thorn trees in South Africa’s dusty bushveld, stops and points at an asset he says could be worth R58.43m. It’s a buffalo calf named Manyara.

“This little guy has all the potential to become one of the biggest in the country,” the 52-year-old game farmer said as he pointed at the calf’s milky white horns. “The genetics are superb,” Malan said dressed in khaki shorts and a shirt with his name embossed on it.

Manyara is the half-brother of Horizon, South Africa’s biggest-horned disease-free buffalo bull, who earned his name from his 140cm-wide horns. Malan sold Horizon for a then- record R26m in 2012 and he’s betting that Manyara, named after a Tanzanian lake, is worth even more.

Read: The art of insuring a mighty buffalo bull

Record prices, which have risen fivefold in six years, are a product of South Africa’s booming game ranching business in which the country’s wealthiest, including Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and luxury-goods billionaire Johann Rupert, compete to breed the biggest and rarest animals to generate revenue from hunting. Some critics say the price surge is a bubble.

Read: Johann Rupert pays R40m for buffalo bull

Two hundred years ago, African buffaloes regularly had horns spanning more than 150cm, almost the length of two baseball bats, Malan said. Hunting has now eliminated the largest animals from the gene pool with a horn spread of 102cm today considered big.

Lion circle

“We breed them to be able to breed back the top genetics,” Malan said in an interview at his farm called Lumarie, where he has bolstered his security by circling his house with a cage containing three lions. “We’re not here to create something that was never there before, we’re trying to replace.”

Horn size is king in an industry underpinned by hunters from the US and Europe who are demanding - and paying for - ever larger and more diverse trophies. A prime western Zambian sable, a black-and-white antelope known for its grooved, arching horns, can cost R5m, while a white kudu bull is worth R1m. Some of the colour variants are from recessive genes and occur only rarely in the wild.

The buffalo trade and genetic enhancement are booming in South Africa because of its unique game-ownership laws, according to Peter Oberem, president of Wildlife Ranching South Africa. South Africa and Namibia are the only countries in Africa that allow grant individuals full property rights to wild animals.

Mystery buffalo

“The buffalo in this country are privately owned, therefore people wish to manage those assets in a way to preserve them and also to maintain or improve their value,” Oberem said. “In the rest of Africa that’s not the case.”

Rupert, South Africa’s second-richest person, led a group of investors that paid a record R40m for Mystery, a buffalo with a horn span of more than 135cm, in 2013. Ramaphosa made an unsuccessful R19.5m bid for a buffalo cow and calf at a 2012 auction.

At an auction near Bela-Bela in Limpopo Province in August, the biggest-ever buffalo sale, more than 70 of the animals were sold for R70m. The average buffalo price was R883 556 in 2013, up from R183 050 in 2008, according to Vleissentraal Game Auction data compiled by Richard York, a breeder of golden wildebeest.

These prices are being inflated by wealthy breeders trading between each other and aren’t underpinned by wider demand for hunting, according to Chris Niehaus, a former chief executive officer of the South African Hunters and Game Conservation Association.

Two hundred years ago, African buffaloes regularly had horns spanning more than 150cm. (Photo: Shutterstock).

Bubble building?

“In my opinion it’s a bubble. I understand financial markets and I can see a bubble when one raises its head,” Niehaus, who is also a former CEO of HSBC Holdings Plc’s South Africa unit, said by phone. “These people who are playing a financial shell game between each other are putting one of the greatest conservation success stories in the world at risk.”

South Africa’s population of large mammals has ballooned to about 24 million the most since the 19th century, and up from 575 000 in the early 1960s, according to Wouter van Hoven, an emeritus professor at the University of Pretoria. The primary reason is due to the country’s ownership laws, enshrined in the Game Theft Act of 1991, that allow people to own, invest, breed and hunt, according to WRSA’s Oberem.

Malan says that’s an unfair to describe game farming as a bubble because it isn’t driven by debt-fueled investments like US real estate. While the price of assets such as property move up and down with the health of the economy breeding offers financial exits, he said.

Manhattan-sized

“You pay a million rand for a cow and the prices drop 50%, how do you recover your money? You breed it out,” he said. “Instead of taking you one year to get your money back, it might take you three years.”

Touring through Lumarie, a game farm that’s larger than Manhattan’s land mass, Malan spots another multimillion-dollar asset, the 127cm horns of Manyara’s brother, who’s a perfect stud for breeding with heifers.

“There’s Serengeti,” Malan says, swinging his 4x4 toward the 9-year-old brother, who’s standing among a group of heifers who he’ll mate with. “He’s the boss, not for sale. He would be worth R30m.”

Buffalo breeding is part science, part experience, says Malan. In females farmers look for characteristics such as good horn length, enough milk and regular calving intervals, while for males indications include horn size, body mass and shape. That know-how is complemented with DNA testing to prevent inbreeding as well as identifying strong breeding lines.

African buffaloes can stand 1.5 metres at the shoulder and weigh 750kg.

Negligible contribution

Such approaches to breeding risks reducing the genetic variation of the animals and losing important traits for survival, according to Cindy Harper of the University of Pretoria’s Veterinary Genetics Laboratory.

“Captive-bred animals can lose their ability to adapt to natural vegetation, drought and lose their responses to predators,” Harper said by phone. “If your breeding program is focused on only one trait such as horn length or colour then you risk losing other important traits and genetic variation and fixing negative factors in your herd.”

Selective breeding can also help sustain less hardy animals that may not have survived in the wild as well, according to South Africa’s Endangered Wildlife Trust.

“They could be losing the ability to defend themselves, physiologically and immunologically, against diseases, they could be losing the ability to protect themselves from predators,” said Wildlife Trade and Ranching Project Manager Andrew Taylor. “If you end up domesticating them, the benefit for conservation is negligible.”

Unresponsive old-timer

Serengeti’s and Horizon’s sought-after genes come from their 21-year-old father Brits, who was found resting under a thorny acacia tree and ignored Malan’s attempts to mimic the guttural grunts of a buffalo.

Diseases such as tuberculosis and foot-and-mouth, are among Malan’s greatest concerns, so new buffalo must be inspected by a vet before they are introduced to his property, while his staff regularly usher game into bomas, or animal enclosures, where they are dipped to kill ticks which can carry disease.

A major reason why Malan’s and other game farmers’ stock of animals is so valuable is because they are mostly healthy. Bovine tuberculosis is widespread among buffaloes in the Kruger National Park and other public reserves.

Soon after leaving the highway to re-enter his farm, Malan spots a herd of 22 buffaloes who share about 80 hectares of his land. In the cluster worth around R80m, he spots his next superstar and marvels at his 114cm horns and huge body of the four-year-old calf.

“What I like about him is not only his length but look at his body on the horn,” he said leaning from his window. “His horn mass is great. He hasn’t got a name yet. He’s got to prove himself here before he gets the opportunity of breeding.”

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