Christopher Spillane and Kevin Crowley
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 $5 million. 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 55-inch wide horns. Malan sold Horizon for a then-record 26 million rand ($2.4 million) in 2012 and he’s betting that Manyara, named after a Tanzanian lake, is worth even more.
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.
Two hundred years ago African buffaloes regularly had horns spanning more than 60 inches, 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 40 inches today considered big.
“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 five million rand, while a white kudu bull is worth one million rand. Some of the colour variants, such as coffee springbok golden wildebeest, 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.
“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 40 million rand for Mystery, a buffalo with a horn span of more than 53 inches, in 2013. Ramaphosa made an unsuccessful 19.5 million rand 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 70 million rand. The average buffalo price was 883,556 rand in 2013, up from 183,050 rand 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.
“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’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.
“Private ranchers are very much responsible for the fact that the growing numbers of these rare species are in South Africa,” said Norman Adami, the former chairman of SABMiller’s South African unit, in an interview. “The numbers are dwindling in the rest of Africa.”
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.
“You pay a million rand for a cow and the prices drop 50 per cent, 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 50-inch horns of Manyara’s brother, who’s a perfect stud for breeding with heifers.
“There’s Serengeti,” Malan says, swinging his 4×4 toward the nine-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 30 million rand.”
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.
“By breeding you can make 50 to 150 per cent returns a year,” said Adami, who owns a game farm with 200 buffalo, 200 sable antelopes and 100 roan antelopes.
African buffaloes can stand five ft at the shoulder and weigh 1,653 pounds.
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 programme 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.”
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 198 acres of his land. In the cluster worth around 80 million rand, he spots his next superstar and marvels at his 45-inch 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.