Towards the end of the 1950’s a small group of cattle ranchers, who were also committed wildlife conservationists, pioneered the game ranching industry in Zimbabwe. The idea developed from the theory that a spectrum of wild animals is ecologically more efficient at producing meat and by-products than a single domestic species. The theory was untested and considerable business risks were taken and many frustrations endured before game ranching was proved to be a viable land use alternative.
The country’s Wild Life Conservation Act, 1960, paved the way for the introduction of game ranching in Zimbabwe. The Parks and Wild Life Act of 1975 consolidated the process into a workable legal framework. This act was revolutionary in that the ownership of wildlife was transferred from the state to the appropriate authority of the land with the exception of specially protected species. Critics of the act predicted the end of game outside of national parks but in fact wildlife flourished.
The fledgling game ranching industry was supported by the country’s Department of National Parks and wildlife management through the capture and translocation of thousands of animals from park’s estate onto private land. This enabled the ranchers to stock their land cheaply.
Buffalo Range ranch, situated in the south east of the country, was one of the first cattle ranches to embrace game ranching. The region had always had good game populations but wild animals were considered competitors with cattle for grazing as well as a reservoir for diseases. Attempts to eliminate game were made through relentless hunting, fencing and denying the wild animals access to water.
Cattle ranching in Zimbabwe’s semi-arid regions is marginal and many owners over the years have had to overstock to remain economically viable.
Ignoring long-term damage to the environment, the natural productivity of the systems became overburdened. Research in 1973 into the comparison between the ecological advantages of cattle and game found that the degraded vegetation in the game section of Buffalo Range ranch was being less stressed than the better vegetation in the cattle section. 13 years later after the drought of 1982-1984 it was observed that the vegetation in the game section had continued to improve and was in better condition than that in the cattle section, which had continued to deteriorate.
The vegetation had become more productive under game and less so under cattle. This happened on a ranch where overstocking of cattle was much less severe than in many arid and semi-arid areas in Africa.
The results of the research showed that conventional beef production is not an ecologically and economically sustainable option in semi-arid regions. A notable fact to emerge was that the differences between the amount of meat produced by cattle and wildlife was insignificant, although the relative impact of cattle on the natural vegetation was considerable.
Games yields, initially impeded by the degraded state of the game section, were improving and at the same time allowing the vegetation to recover. Over the fence cattle yields, which had been high on good range, were declining because of overgrazing and consequent habitat deterioration.
The early emphasis of game ranching was on cropping. It was imperative to produce good-quality meat, as it had to compete with beef. Most outlets were a considerable distance from the game ranches. The meat had to be on the market within 36 hours of slaughter, which created the need for well-equipped butcheries with meat freezing facilities.
By the mid 1960s game ranchers looked towards recreational sport hunting as a source of revenue. Most hunters were local or South African, as Zimbabwe could not compete for overseas clientele with other well established safari destinations in Africa. With sport hunting, the profitability of game ranching improved. Financially, cropping became of secondary significance.
The overall attitude of cattle ranchers towards wildlife began to change. There was an increase in the number and spread of game with its growing financial importance. The level of poaching declined with the employment of more game guards as ranchers came to appreciate the value of “their” wildlife.
With this, range management was greatly improved and wildlife interests became an integral part of ranching programs. It was from this that the wildlife conservancy model evolved. Across the country game ranches were amalgamated to create larger nature sanctuaries.
Game ranching preserves biological diversity and natural landscapes outside of formally protected government controlled areas, while also enhancing rural production. It is also an initiative in which Africa has a comparative economic advantage over the rest of the world, because of the continent’s spectacular wildlife.
By rejecting a protectionist, non-consumptive philosophy and recognizing the financial value of game animals, economic forces have been stimulated to conserve wildlife.