Passive game capture revolution Hillcrest Game Estates

The passive game capture revolution — Part 1: A new look at game capture

Dr William SchackAuthor: Dr Wilhelm Schack — Owner, veterinarian and ecologist at Eko Wild.

Historic context

The wildlife of Africa has seen many eras marked by distinct differences in inherent value of game for mankind. In ancient times the teeming herds of animals roaming the continent freely in their millions had the mere value of aiding the subsistence of a relatively small human population. During the second millennium, trade with wildlife commodities like ivory, rhino horn and skins took off, and game meat consumption became increasingly important as protein source for a growing human population.

In the 1700’s and 1800’s, the arrival of black powder and guns ushered in a devastating era of overexploitation of this seemingly endless wildlife resource. This in turn led to a rude awakening in the 1900’s that game, as resource, was finite and needed stringent preservation measures if any of the once bountiful herds of plains game were to survive coming decades.

By the 20th Century, commercialisation of wildlife resources brought along substantial incentivisation for protection of almost all species of wildlife. There was however, a categorisation of species based on the different value systems by which they were judged by consumers. Products from iconic species like elephant and rhino found their intrinsic value at disproportionately high levels in countries outside Africa, mainly the Near and Far East to where products were exported for various reasons and markets like traditional Chinese medicine (rhino horn), jewellery and art (ivory) and culture (dagger handles out of rhino horn in Arabian countries). Ordinary plains game species found their intrinsic value split up in two sub-systems: namely, trophy value coupled to visiting hunters from overseas countries, and meat value for a rapidly growing human population.

Taken together, all subsections of the wildlife industry make for very attractive and lucrative investment opportunities. Let us however overlook for the moment that there are many ways in which these game resources are currently being exploited either legally or illegally and that particular methods of utilisation of the resource can be described as being sustainable over the long term (or not). The point is, all-round, wildlife is extremely valuable for humankind which illustrates our dependence and connection to nature at large.

Wildlife commodities and game-capture

The discovery of the intrinsic value of wildlife commodities (be it for commercial or conservation objectives) led to scientific interest and consequently the development of wildlife and habitat management techniques. Over the last seven decades game capture methods developed rapidly and are still becoming increasingly sophisticated. It quickly became clear that good value wildlife was in high demand elsewhere, especially in areas where species occurred in former times, and had to be translocated and reintroduced to where they were exterminated over the last two to three centuries.

Passive Game Capture Hillcrest Game Estates
Seen here, part of the passive game capture process involves managing the handling of game throughout the walkways of the passive game capture apparatus.

Game-capture itself underwent different eras or phases of growth and development. For the period of about 60 years ago, one can only speak of small scale ‘experimental’ operations where drugs and capture techniques received lots of testing. On conclusion of this phase, which was driven by many dedicated and passionate pioneers, operations of substantial scale started taking place in southern Africa and especially in South Africa. Hundreds of thousands of animals were translocated since the 1970’s and 1980’s till today, thereby accounting for millions of hectares of land coming under wildlife utilisation since the mass eradications of 200 hundred years ago. This lead to millions of head of game populating the land again. The South African game industry story is one of the biggest success stories of land and habitat rehabilitation operations in the world today. This is primarily owing to the fact that wildlife was conceived by the pioneers and other subsequent entrants to the marketplace to possess real value, be it aesthetical value for conservationists or commercial value for breeders, capture operators, traders and consumers of end products.

Game capture in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s

The game capture method in the 1970’s, 1980’s 1990’s and 2000’s was by and large the mass capture technique with helicopters, huge capture teams and big trucks. Darting also played an important role, and was mostly employed on the bigger wildlife species and valuable animals. Mass capture involved up to 200 animals or more on any given day. The daily translocation of these volumes of game played an enormously important role, resulting in the game industry experiencing exponential growth during the first two or three decades following the 1960’s.

Huge tracts of traditional farming land was converted from cattle and sheep farming to game-ranching. There was an rapid expansion taking place in the game-industry. Stock farmers with intricate knowledge of animal-husbandry and grazing management were at a significant advantage in adapting to the in’s and out’s of the new industry. The only real difference between stock and game-farming was that rounding up of animals, handling and transport was controlled not by the farmer himself, but by a few specialised game capture operators with expensive equipment like helicopters and big interlink trucks, and them being assisted by big teams of between 20 and 50 well trained capture personnel.

The next big phase in the game industry…

One of the advantages of the passive game capture process, is that it has proven to result in the least amount of stress for the wild game animals.

The next big phase in the game industry occurred when the ceiling of the large-scale rapid expansion process was reached by approximately the early 2000’s. The industry was well established at this time. Hunting boomed and there now arose the need for ranchers to start looking at the genetic health of their herds which were kept in the confined fenced former cattle or sheep production units of approximately between 1000 and 20,000 hectares. The smaller the founder population was in the beginning of the enterprise and the smaller the land in question, the more rapid and the more likely inbreeding was to result. Genetic variance had to be increased and it became critical to start with a selection process to work towards genetically healthy and superior stock as was demanded by the growing hunting and breeding markets. Darting of individual animals became the order of the day, and mass capture became a more sporadically-employed capture technique to remove surpluses of animals which were not sufficiently dealt with through hunting and culling on the newly established ‘agricultural’ production units.

The rise of Passive Game Capture

Following the preceding set of conditions, the need for a more intuitive passive game capture arose. Mass capture, which proved to be quite disruptive in terms of the social fabric and breeding behaviour of game populations, dwindled away. Mass capture was also proving to be a very expensive wildlife management technique. Currently, although there will always be a need for traditional mass capture techniques, it will never again reach the scale of operations it once reached during its heyday.

Seen here, sedatives are applied using a pole-syringe.

Passive capture techniques have organically grown and now constitute the natural and logical consequence of all the developments of the wildlife industry. As such, today we find ourselves in the second decade of the 21st century where we can employ a method which has the following advantages for ranchers, and most importantly, for the game animals as well:

  1. It is a low-stress capture technique favouring animal-wellbeing tremendously.
  2. It results in very few, if any, mortalities during capture.
  3. The rancher can do it himself, and it is now possible for him to do his own selection of breeding and culling stock.
  4. Case studies have shown that over the longer-term, capture and handling costs are reduced to about 50% of traditional costs.
  5. Passive capture optimises time-management for specialist veterinary interventions and thus leads to a win-win situation for the farmer and the vet.

Next issue—Part 2 (to follow)

In part 2 of this series of articles we will look at the prize squeeze in the game industry today and debate the question whether passive capture provides a solution to the imminent ‘adapt or die’ scenario for game ranchers.

The Eko Wild mission is to concentrate and make available the best knowledge and experience in wildlife management and to guide national and international investment to the enhancement and development of assets, thereby contributing significantly to local and international economies with emphasis on the stakes of the people of Africa.

For more information related to Eko Wild and Passive Game Capture course, please contact us and we will respond to your inquiry. More information about a forthcoming Passive Game Capture practical experience at Hillcrest can be obtained here.