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Pitfalls on live wildlife auctions:

the origin of wildlife

24 August 2012

The world is full of myths in which people believe blindly and wildlife producers are no exception. One of the myths among wildlife producers is that wildlife that show deviating characteristics are bound to be a secure investment. Many wildlife producers therefore believe that wildlife with exceptional characteristics will improve their own wildlife while the wildlife of any given region is known to be genetically best adapted to the specific environment. As a result of this myth, many wildlife producers turn towards the importation of wildlife with deviations in appearance while they actually are genetic freaks. A few examples will be discussed briefly below.

A wild animal’s physical appearance (phenotype) is determined by the interaction between its genetics (genotype) and its natural environment. The appearance of a specific animal is based upon its observable characteristics, such as the coat colour and pattern, the size and shape of the horns, its weight and on its biochemical and physiological composition. In the genotype, or genetic composition, there is infinite variation in any large population or herd. This may create the natural colour variations which appear when two deviant animals reproduce. The genotype also differs from the genome of an animal which is a measure of its total genetic composition and indicates how a specific animal differs from others in a population or herd and is a measure of its total genetic composition. Blue and brown eyes in humans and coat colour variations in wildlife are examples of this and are often based on the occurrence of recessive (bb) and dominant (Bb or BB) genotypes although more genetic aspects may be involved. Just as blue eyes in a human and deviant coat colour variations in wildlife are at least partially based on a recessive (bb) genotype, humans with brown eyes and wildlife a normal coat colour will contain a dominant genotype (Bb or BB). Deviant coat colour variations in wildlife are rare in the wild because the dominant genotype is best adapted to the specific set of environmental conditions. Recessive genotypes usually occur through genetic mutations in specific environments and are known as ecotypes. Blue eyes in humans, for example, only appeared in humans in Eurasia some 6000 years ago but then spread to the north of Europe because they were better adapted to that environment than brown eyes.

Recessive genotypes usually contain other alleles (alternative forms of a gene) on a chromosome (the carrier of the genes) than dominant genotypes. When deviant wildlife are purchased and are mixed with normal local wildlife then the deviant patterns usually disappear with time from a population or herd, or it only appears as an exception when two animals that both carry the recessive genotype reproduce. This is one reason why fewer humans have blue than brown eyes.

A few examples of the practical implications for extensive wildlife production will next be discussed briefly. The springbok occurs in three natural colour variations in the wild: white, black and the usual colour. White springbok are rare in the wild and black springbok mainly occur in the Karoo. Therefore white and black springbok, and other rare colour deviations, fetch higher prices per animal than normally coloured springbok on wildlife auctions. In addition, the large springbok of the Kalahari and further north represents a different subspecies Antidorcas marsupialis hofmeyri than the smaller springbok Antidorcas marsupialis marsupialis in the rest of South Africa, with a third subspecies Antidorcas marsupialis angolensis in north-western Namibia and south-western Angola. Springbok from the Kalahari were sold at live wildlife auctions at double the price of the more southern ones in 2011 partially in an effort to increase the size of the smaller subspecies. However, the larger size of a Kalahari springbok is the product of food with a high nutritional content and a warmer climate. When it is translocated to more southern regions its offspring become smaller with time because of less nutritious food plants such as those in the Karoo and fynbos which are mostly nutritionally poor for a springbok. Even adult Kalahari springbok which are translocated in this way experience a weight loss over time and may later only be 2 to 3 kg heavier than the southern subspecies unless they receive a highly nutritious food supplement which does not make economic sense. On top of this the Kalahari springbok has the smallest horns of all three subspecies which does not make it a valued trophy animal. A nutritional impact also causes the impala from the sweet bushveld to be as much as 13 per cent heavier than its counterpart in the Lowveld bushveld, although the heaviest impalas occur in Zimbabwe. The heaviest buffaloes occur in optimal habitat in northern Botswana, while the heaviest greater kudus occur in northern Namibia.

The sable antelope of western Zambia is similar in appearance to the rare giant sable antelope of Angola, is being imported increasingly into South Africa and in 2011 contributed a large proportion to the turnover at live wildlife auctions in South Africa because some individuals were sold for as much as R3 million each. This creates a skewed impression of such auctions and harbours inherent dangers for the local sable antelope population when they are kept together. Although the sable antelope from western Zambia is not genetically different enough from its South African counterpart to be classified as a separate subspecies, it does have significant genetic differences because it is adapted to the more optimal but geographically isolated habitat in western Zambia and is being regarded as a different ecotype. In addition, the sable antelope in South Africa currently occurs naturally in or have been translocated to marginal habitats. When importing sable antelope from western Zambia and mixing them genetically with South African stock it creates ecological and genetic problems which can reduce the ability of local stock to adapt to their already marginal habitats. Genetic studies on wildlife ranches are already indicating that most of the local stock has become genetically contaminated in this way without showing the physical appearance of the western Zambian sable antelope. There also is no guarantee that the western Zambian sable antelope will not adapt genetically over time to the marginal habitat in South Africa, even when they are kept in isolation.

The same trend as in the sable antelope occurs in the roan antelope in South Africa but in this case the genetic pollution is worse because two separate subspecies, Hippotragus equinus koba in the north andHippotragus equinus equinus in the south of southern Africa, are involved. This pollution has already led to the absence of pure southern roan antelope in many parts of South Africa. Although this is probably too late, proof of genetic purity is now required by several provinces before permits for transporting roan antelope are given. The mean prices per roan antelope have also decreased sharply in recent years because of its increased production and availability on live wildlife auctions, although they increased again in 2011 because the roan antelope still relatively rare on wildlife auctions.

To breed with deviant variations of wildlife requires that they be kept in isolation from normal forms of the same type so as to avoid genetic pollution. When they are mixed with normal wildlife they will gradually be absorbed genetically. The additional danger is that herds of genetically variant wildlife will be genetically homogeneous and will not be able to adapt to changing environmental conditions such as prolonged periodic droughts or habitat changes. Some trophy hunters also are not interested in hunting genetically impure wildlife. Improving the quality of local wildlife through the improvement of habitat quality may be a better option than the importation of expensive deviant genetic material. It is therefore strange that the importation of genetically recessive animals is so popular with wildlife ranchers who are usually well aware of the principles of producing genetically heterogeneous stud livestock. The attraction lies in the fact that deviant wildlife are currently selling at high prices because they are still relatively rare. When they become more readily available, this difference in value will dissipate and then some wildlife ranchers who are currently incurring debt to buy stocks of deviant wildlife may find themselves in financial difficulties.



Cloete, F 2012. Tendense van lewende wildverkope 2011. Game & Hunt 18(2): 18 - 20.

Jansen van Vuuren, B, T J Robinson, P VazPinto, R Estes en C A Matthee 2010. Western Zambian sable antelope: are they a geographic extension of the giant sable? South African Journal of Wildlife Research 40(1): 35 - 42.

Koen, J 2012. Western roan antelope in South Africa. Game & Hunt 18(7): 69.


By: Prof J du P Bothma

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