Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy

South African Wildlife Economy Workshop in Pretoria March 2017

Michael 't Sas-Rolfes

Among countries that officially endorse a sustainable use approach to biodiversity conservation, South Africa stands out as a pioneer of market-friendly policies toward wildlife management. These have enabled the growth of a substantial and innovative wildlife ranching industry, driven by private landowners and entrepreneurs. This industry not only contributes meaningfully to rural livelihoods and the country’s economy; it also appears to generate significant positive spill-over effects for both landscape and species conservation. Several recent studies indicate that it now accounts for at least 17 million hectares of land, divided over at least 9,000 private ranches (most of which were previously under conventional agricultural use) and that numbers of most (if not all) large wild South Africa mammal species are the highest they have been for more than a century. However, the industry is not without its critics and skeptics.

Noting a growing trend toward intensive and selective breeding of certain rare and commercially valuable large mammal species (including unusual colour variants), conservation scientists and others have expressed concern about how this may affect biodiversity. Practices such as the increased use of fences and harsh predator control methods may contribute to habitat fragmentation, land degradation (through overstocking), and associated biodiversity loss. There are also concerns over threats to the genetic integrity of species resulting from selective breeding for commercially desirable but unnatural traits, and from the spread of genetic material outside of historical ranges. Adding to these conservation issues, others point to unfulfilled needs for socio-economic transformation and the ethics of certain hunting practices as factors that detract from the image and reputation of the industry, if not the entire country’s wildlife management regime. These are certainly valid concerns, but do these risks and costs outweigh the overall benefits of commercial wildlife ranching?

To consider this question, a diverse group of experts met in Pretoria, South Africa, from the 15th to the 17th of March for a Wildlife Economy Workshop. Convened by the Swiss-based NGO Earthmind, and co-hosted by Wildlife Ranching South Africa (WRSA), the workshop included mostly local participants from academia, the wildlife industry, government agencies and the NGO sector. Its purpose was twofold: 1) to assess what we know about the contributions of wildlife ranching to both conservation and human development, and 2) to assess what we know about how these contributions are affected by varying forms of governance (institutional arrangements, legislation and policy frameworks). The workshop consisted of several presentations followed by discussions and working group sessions to identify future priorities for research and action.

Participants of the WRSA Earthmind Wildlife Economy Workshop, South Africa 2017

The presenters included three SULi members, Brian Child, Frank Vorhies and the author, as well as Andrew Blackmore, a leading expert on South African environmental and wildlife law. These presentations reviewed the history of conservation outside of protected areas in Southern Africa, provided a literature review on contributions, highlighted conflicting approaches to economic assessments and discussed the potential role of the public trust doctrine as a legal instrument. As an additional feature of the workshop, two distinguished experts in wildlife law and economics from the USA considered what lessons could be drawn from the North American experience. They were Professor Terry Anderson from Standford University’s Hoover Institution and Professor Dean Lueck from the Ostrom Workshop and Indiana University Bloomington. Terry Anderson’s presentation usefully highlighted substantial differences between the North American Model of Wildlife Management and southern African approaches and the implications thereof; Dean Lueck built upon this by outlining a framework for comparative institutional analysis of wildlife governance regimes.

The Wildlife Economy workshop was in a line of succession to two previous workshops, one held in Bozeman, Montana in 2015 and hosted by the Property and Environment Research Centre, and which adopted a more academic approach to the topic: Wildlife Conservation, Markets and Property Rights; and a second, hosted by WRSA in March 2016, which adopted a more pragmatic approach to discuss a vision for a coherent African wildlife industry. Participants at the latter workshop identified the need for better assessment of industry contributions and improved understanding of the role and impact of varying forms of governance, which prompted the recent follow-up workshop. The output of the 2016 workshop, which adopted a broader regional perspective, also highlighted that South Africa is unique in certain respects, thus prompting the narrower geographical focus of the 2017 Wildlife Economy event.

So where to next? Workshop participants identified significant knowledge gaps that currently preclude definitive answers to the two main questions, and further identified several priority areas for future research. These are being refined and discussed further by members of the group, with hopes to establish a broader and ongoing community of practice, in which industry participants can forge more constructive relationships with academic researchers and NGOs, and thereby help to inform policy-makers. Ideally, this community will extend to wildlife industry participants in neighbouring African countries, enabling exchange in regional best practice and identifying the most appropriate governance regimes to address the identified areas of concern. The SULi members among this group will also strive to enhance links between this community and the nascent SULi East and Southern African chapter.


Michael 't Sas-Rolfes is a conservation economist based in South Africa and can be contacted at

Go to top