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South Africa’s private wildlife ranches protect globally significant populations of wild ungulates

Abstract

Reversing biodiversity loss is a global imperative that requires setting aside sufficient space for species. In South Africa, an estimated area of 20 million ha is under wildlife ranching, a form of private land enterprise that adopts wildlife-based land uses for commercial gain. This land has potential to contribute towards biodiversity conservation, but the extent to which this occurs has not been evaluated. Using structured questionnaires of 226 wildlife ranchers, we assessed how the sector contributes towards the conservation of ungulates and elephants (hereafter herbivores). Overall, 40 herbivore species were present across the sample, where individual ranches had a mean of 15.0 (± 4.8) species, 1.9 (± 1.5) threatened species, and 3.6 (± 3.1) extralimital species per property. In comparison to 54 state PAs, wildlife ranches had significantly higher species richness, more threatened species but more extralimital species when property/reserve size was controlled for. Ranches conducting trophy hunting had similar species richness and numbers of extralimital species per ha, but fewer threatened species when compared to ranches conducting ecotourism. We estimate that 4.66–7.25 million herbivores occur on ranches nationally, representing one of the few examples on earth where indigenous mammal populations are thriving and demonstrating how sustainable use can lead to rewilding. We discuss the potential negative impacts of widespread game fencing on landscape fragmentation and gene flow, as well as how the widespread occurrence of extralimital species may lead to hybridisation, biotic homogenisation, and changes to vegetation dynamics. Despite these challenges, commercial wildlife ranching offers a viable option for conserving large mammalian herbivore biodiversity.

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Data availability

All data generated or analysed during this study (except for landowner personal information) are included in this published article and its Supplementary Online Information Files.

Code availability

Not applicable.

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Acknowledgements

The study was funded by the Green Fund/Development Bank of South Africa. Thanks to Arnaud le Roux, Megan Murison, Vincent van der Merwe, Stephen Moseley, Viv Thomé, and the late Johan Manson, for conducting the survey questionnaires; to the late Jonathan Barnes for helping with survey design; to John Power (North West Parks), and Brian Reeves (ECPTA) for providing species occurrence data in PAs. WRSA facilitated contacting some of the participants. We are very grateful to 226 landowners and managers for taking time to answer survey questionnaires.

Funding

The study was funded by the Green Fund/Development Bank of South Africa. The authors have no relevant financial or non-financial interests to disclose.

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Contributions

WAT: Conceptualisation, methodology, investigation, formal analysis, data curation, writing-original draft; MFC: Conceptualisation, writing-review and editing; PAL: Conceptualisation, methodology, writing-review and editing; SKN: Investigation, writing-review and editing; CR: Investigation, writing-review and editing; HTD-M: Conceptualisation, methodology, writing-review and editing, funding acquisition.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to W. Andrew Taylor.

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The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare that are relevant to the content of this article. All authors certify that they have no affiliations with or involvement in any organization or entity with any financial interest or non-financial interest in the subject matter or materials discussed in this manuscript. The authors have no financial or proprietary interests in any material discussed in this article.

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University of Pretoria Ethics Approval No. V025-14.

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Participants were contacted via telephone to request participation. They were provided with a verbal explanation of the purpose of the study and were told that their contributions would be confidential and anonymous. All data were aggregated for analysis and no personal information is divulged.

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Communicated by Karen E. Hodges.

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Taylor, W.A., Child, M.F., Lindsey, P.A. et al. South Africa’s private wildlife ranches protect globally significant populations of wild ungulates. Biodivers Conserv 30, 4111–4135 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10531-021-02294-5

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Keywords

  • Wildlife ranches
  • Ungulates
  • Species richness
  • Metabolic biomass
  • Extralimital species
  • Fences