Stand in line at the biltong counter in South Africa’s Food Lover’s Market, and you’ll likely be able to choose the much-loved dried-meat delicacy made from some of the country’s iconic game — impala, eland, kudu, wildebeest and ostrich.
South Africa has the world’s largest game ranching industry for privately owned game, and the money it generates is not just from game viewing and trophy hunting. It’s from game meat, consumed locally.
Very little game meat is being exported.
Game ranchers hope in 2016 to push through legislation that will allow them to export game meat — a massive business opportunity that has so far been untapped, according to Adri Kitshoff-Botha, CEO of Wildlife Ranching SA.
Kitshoff-Botha heads Wildlife Ranching SA (WRSA), a nonprofit organisation representing 1,500 members of 9,000 registered game ranches. Its main function is to liaise between game ranchers, non-governmental and governmental authorities, according to its website.
South Africa has more than 10,000 wildlife farms (up from about 3,500 in 1992) covering more than 20 million hectares, according to the 2013 Absa Agriculture Outlook, Matchdeck reported. This means three times more conservation land is privately owned than government owned. These private game ranches are home to twice as many animals as the public parks.
South African game farms produce about 120,000-to-150,000 tons of game meat a year but very little is being exported, Kitshoff-Botha said in a BusinessDayLive interview.
South Africa exports less than 2,000 tons of game meat annually, Matchdeck reported in 2013.
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Getting game meat onto the shelves in local supermarkets and then to export — that’s a massive opportunity, Kitshoff-Botha said. “New Zealand for instance exports 4 billion rand ($262.4 million US) worth of venison a year. Imagine what we can do in South Africa.”
The largest number of trophy hunters come from the U.S. whereas South Africans are more likely to hunt for biltong than for trophies, according to Matchdeck. Venison and biltong are the key products derived from game hunting.
So why hasn’t South Africa, with its wealth of resources and access to export markets, tapped the game meat export market?
“There’s still an issue with lack of clarity regarding the legislation,” Kitshoff-Botha said. “The Department of Agriculture needs to finalize the legislation regarding the Game Meat Scheme and the Game Meat Act to safely produce game meat for use out there in South Africa and abroad.”
“The Wildlife Ranching Association of South Africa has been involved over the past years with the Department of Agriculture and we certainly hope that it is one of the things that we will attend to seriously in the coming year to get that going. It’s an opportunity that we just cannot say no to,” he said.
The South African game industry depends a lot on consumptive tourism — hunting — as opposed to “non-consumptive” tourism, which is basically game viewing and photo safaris, Kitshoff-Botha said. Consumptive hunting attracts international hunters.
Game hunting revenue in South Africa has shown constant growth over the past 10 years, both from local South African hunters and international. “It’s close to a 9 billion rand ($590 million US) economy that thrives within the game ranching business,” Kitshoff-Botha told BusinessDayLive.
That 9 billion rand is just a small sliver of South Africa’s total wildlife industry, estimated to generate about 123 billion rand (about $8 billion US annually), according to Absa bank.
Conventional farmers have been integrating game ranching into their operations or switching over to game ranching completely since 1991, Kitshoff-Botha said. The drought hasn’t helped.
Game ranching is more adaptable to severe weather conditions than conventional farming. “We’ve seen it again now with the drought,” he said. “The agricultural side and conventional farming is becoming more challenging every day … Profitability of the game ranching side is a good enough reason for a lot of conventional farmers to consider … game ranching. ”
Commercial wildlife ranches cover 16.8 percent of South Africa. About half are in Limpopo Province, according to Mail & Guardian. The Northern Cape has about 20 percent, and the Eastern Cape has 12 percent of the country’s ranches, Matchdeck reported.
The industry employs 140,000 people, according to the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa. The sector is larger than the sugar and dairy industries, according to the Confederation of Hunting Associations of South Africa.
“Invest 5 million rand ($328,000 US) in cattle and in five years you will earn a return of 4.8 percent on your money,” Matchdeck reported. “Invest the same amount of money in sable antelope, and the value of your investment could go up by 45.2 percent. Is it any wonder that the game ranching business is booming?”