Wildly successful: the food potential of SA’s game heritage

Once in dire straits, SA’s magnificent game heritage has transformed into a multi billion-rand industry. The role of this heritage and game ranching extends well beyond ecotourism and hunting – it has great potential to play a role in ensuring the country’s food security.

A lengthy Financial Mail feature article on the wildlife sector notes the game ranching industry is a largely unsung success story that now ranks as SA’s sixth-biggest agricultural sector. It employs more than 100 000 people, primarily in agriculturally marginal rural areas. And it is only getting to grips with its potential.

“The game industry is booming,” says Jacques Malan, president of Wildlife Ranching SA (WRSA).

When it comes to providing a food source, up to now the game industry’s role has been relatively limited. “SA exports about 75 000 head of game a year, primarily to EU countries,” says Piet Neethling, MD of Camdeboo Meat Processors, which operates SA’s biggest game and ostrich abattoir in Graaff-Reinet.

He says springbok is the primary venison export and earns SA only around R60m-R70m annually.

Neethling continues: “Domestically there is a small restaurant and retail market for venison. Hunters also take a lot of meat home. But even including these, I would estimate the total value of SA’s venison market at only R300m to R400m annually.”

The value of exported venison is dwarfed by SA’s red and white meat imports which, Dry says, are running at almost R4bn/year. SA’s red meat industry in particular is experiencing capacity constraints that have been highlighted by wildlife veterinarian and researcher Kobus du Toit. He estimates that the number of cattle farmed commercially in SA has been stable at around 8m since 1971.

Du Toit also estimates that the number of sheep farmed commercially in SA has held steady at about 28m over the past four decades. But over the same period, SA’s population has grown from about 20m to 50m.

Providing similar estimates for commercial cattle stock numbers, Red Meat Research & Development SA (RMRD) reports that cattle meat imports into the country are running at 32000t/year, or about 5% of local consumption. In addition, SA imports 170000 live cattle from Namibia annually.

RMRD reports that mutton imports are about 50000t/year or almost a third of local consumption. Taking a more pessimistic view than Du Toit on stock levels, RMRD estimates that the number of sheep on commercial farms has fallen by 3m over the past decade to about 22m.

One of the reasons for the stagnation in SA’s commercial cattle numbers and decline in sheep numbers RMRD puts forward is a lack of suitable grazing. This is not a problem faced by game ranching. Game animals are better adapted to local arid conditions, and the carrying capacity of land is far greater for game than for cattle and sheep, says Van Hoven. “Cattle and sheep only graze ground vegetation while different species of game utilise different plant material, from grass to trees,” he says.

Game such as springbok , impala and wildebeest are also prolific breeders, with their numbers growing at between 25% and 35% annually.

Malan believes the time has arrived for the game industry to increase its penetration of the red meat market. “The industry now has the stock levels to expand significantly,” he says .

A big step in this direction is being taken with the establishment of an abattoir focused on game meat in the Waterberg district in Limpopo . “We are in the process of having the abattoir certified by health authorities,” says Peter Oberem, a local veterinarian who heads the initiative, Waterberg Natural Produce.

The abattoir, says Oberem, has the financial backing of a number of game ranchers in the region and will have an initial daily capacity of 140 wildebeest. “There is more than enough stock to meet our requirements,” says Oberem. The slaughtered weight of wildebeest varies from about 100kg to 150kg.

The initial focus, he says , will be on supplying the domestic market. “You have to build a local base first. We have learnt a lot from the ostrich industry, which built its model on meat exports.”

The ostrich industry is facing serious problems as a result of an outbreak of avian flu which has led to a complete cessation of exports to the EU , its biggest market.

However, exports do form part of Waterberg Natural Produce’s longer-term strategy. “There is huge potential for exports to Europe,” says Oberem. “New Zealand alone exports around R2,5bn annually, primarily to Germany.”

The big attraction of venison is that it is a high-value product. “Every 1 kg of venison exported pays for 3 kg of red meat imported,” says Oberem.

At a time when SA is facing growing food insecurity, its wildlife ranching industry could not be in better shape to play a role in providing part of the solution.

Summing up the situation, says Peter Flack, conservationist, hunter and wildlife author: “Wildlife and wildlife habitat in the country have never been on a sounder footing in at least the past 100 years.”

Financial Mail: Read the full article