Some Background on “Conservation” in the Exotic Wildlife Ranching Industry
By Dr. Pat Condy, Fossil Rim Wildlife Center

This word “conservation” is used freely all over the place. It’s used in so many different contexts, it can be confusing. Standardly, it’s used in the contexts of upkeep, preservation, maintenance, protection, safeguarding and saving. There are many definitions of it – such as “the keeping or protecting of something from change, loss, or damage” or “the preservation, management, and care of natural and cultural resources”.   

Focusing on its use in the exotic wildlife ranching industry, the following is a general commentary on some of the key aspects which separate the mere keeping of exotic wildlife on the one hand, from deploying that wildlife in a purposeful ‘conservation’ mode.   

Care vs. Conservation

Caring for animals, exotic or native, is in the first place about ‘animal welfare’. Whether it’s about captive as in a zoo or free-ranging as on a ranch, the animals have to be cared for to a greater or lesser degree by people, depending on how free the animals are to care for themselves. Animal care is regulated under the federal Animal Welfare Act implemented by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Most states also have regulations and standards impacting the care, health and use of native and/or exotic wildlife.

By contrast, caring for a species is what conservation is all about. Animals die. They have a fixed lifespan. They are not eternal. But a species ought to be eternal. It is important to understand this difference between the individual animal(s) and the species. Many confuse one animal as being the species – it is while it’s alive, but before it dies it has to replace itself many times over, for the species to remain in existence.

Wildlife Conservation Industry

Wildlife conservation is a huge industry, all across the globe. Generally speaking the biggest players in this are typically government agencies like National Parks. About 105 countries around the world have national parks systems. Here in the US, there are other agencies that also oversee protected lands, including the Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and its National Wildlife Refuges, the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) federal lands, the US Forest Service (USFS) of the USDA and its National Forests, and at state level every state has an agency administering a protected area (e.g. state park/forest) system. These agencies together preserve, protect and conserve 100s of millions of acres, entire landscapes, whole ecosystems and every living and non-living natural resource within the protected areas. Some of the above mentioned and other federal or state agencies also administer marine protected areas. These federal and state agencies are the BIG fish in the wildlife conservation industry pond.

However they are all federal or state tax-funded government agencies and their primary role in this industry is to preserve, protect and conserve indigenous (native) fauna and flora and landscapes. And all this costs a fortune, illustrating very clearly that: (a) fauna, flora and landscape conservation is a net expense endeavor; and (b) every tax-paying citizen, federal and state, has skin in this industry, like it or not regardless of whether you ever visited a national or state park or forest.

Private Sector Conservation

So then, how does the private sector fit into this conservation industry, when: (a) wildlife conservation is a net expense industry; (b) is dominated by the BIG fish tax-funded government agencies which the private sector is already contributing to; and (c) the public sector pretty much has the conservation of indigenous fauna and flora covered? Well, to start with, the private sector is able to engage with exotic wildlife species and, at the same time, provide for native fauna and flora. However, it has to have its own ways of financing such engagement bearing in mind that owning land, developing infrastructure on it, and acquiring, keeping and caring for animals on the land is an expensive undertaking. Typically the financing of it comes from one or more of the following:

From private wealth. Typically made in altogether different industries,

From tourism. If welcomed on private lands, typically staying in lodges, going on guided game walks or drives, game watching, photography, etc. This can generate significant revenues. However, since tourism is normally seasonal, revenues also fluctuate across seasons.

From legal hunting. If allowed by the landowner this can be a significant source of revenue and, importantly, also serve as a population control and management tool. Typically, exotic species can be hunted all year round, making this a potentially regular financier of wildlife management, conservation and land ownership on private lands,

From selling excess animals. Depending on quantity, age, gender, genetic quality and species of animal, this can be a good source of income but not necessarily a regular and dependable source,

From fundraising. Not normally applicable to private sector landowners that are not registered nonprofit entities. However, there are land and habitat/range improvement assistance grants and/or advisory services from some state and federal agencies available to private landowners.

Exotic Hoofstock Conservation

No matter how it is financed, for private sector engagement in exotic hoofstock species conservation as opposed to simply keeping animals, there are some fundamentals assuming that the well-repeated “3C’s” are in place – ‘contain’ the exotics, ‘control’ their numbers and carefully manage ‘competition’ between exotic species and between them and native species:

The main conservation opportunities are: (a) to maintain carefully managed herds of exotics as ‘species insurance populations’ which can serve as reservoirs for (b) or (c) next; (b) to supply animals to boost declining wild populations; (c) to supply animals to reestablish populations that have gone extant or extinct in the wild, and (d) supporting select organizations or landowners engaged in conservation fieldwork in the natural range of the species. This can be by giving financial or in-kind support by ranch owners individually, or it could be done collectively through the association. 

To engage with opportunities (a), (b), (c) in 1. above, it is essential that; (a) the genetic quality of the animals is carefully managed to maximize genetic diversity; (b) the animals are kept in their natural group sizes (i.e. herds) so that there is natural behavioral dynamics going on between the members of the herd, as if they were in their natural range – animals born into and living in the natural social structure of herds are a lot better suited for being released back into the wild; and (c) numbers of animals are controlled so as not to stress the natural range, habitat and food plant availability on the land – animals in poor body condition for nutritional or disease reasons are not much of an asset to the species.

Breeding for color morphs, bigger body or antler or horn size, etc. is not conservation. Some might call this “breeding for commerce”? But because it’s man-made or artificial manipulation of the natural genetics of a species, even if perfectly legitimate and legal, it is not conservation of the species nor is it in the best interests of species survival – if it was, the species would have done it to itself long ago!   

The greater the cooperation and collaboration between privately owned, good quality species populations, the greater the opportunities are for engagement in actual species conservation and the maintenance of genetic diversity of the animal herds. This is where ranch owner associations, such as the Exotic Wildlife Association, can play significant roles in creating programs, practices, standards and markets, not only for its members as individual entities, but also to come together in collaborative initiatives without in any way diluting or interfering with the sovereign rights of land and animal ownership.

Facilitate scientific research on the different exotics and the natural range on ranches. Appropriate scientific research enabling sound genetic management, proper herd behavioral management, good animal health and productive range/habitat maintenance all underpin effective species conservation. There are faculty and postgraduate students at many academic institutions looking for opportunities to conduct useful research to improve animal, population and range management practices. 

Role of an Association in Conservation

Important roles an association could play, amongst all the other valuable roles it plays, are to:

Establish an arrangement with a genetic lab(s) to do the analysis of samples from the ranches of its members – every animal caught or hunted on member ranches should have samples taken from it for genetic analysis, if not also other health-related parameters. Over time this will build a profile of the genetic diversity and purity of the individual herds and the collective population at and across all those ranches, and enable ranch owners to buy/sell better genetics into the individual and collective populations of exotic wildlife. After all, if species conservation is the goal, the animals must have the qualities suitable for reintroduction programs – e.g. good genetics (i.e. diversity and purity), good health and natural herd behaviors. But even if there is no looming opportunity for reintroductions, the genetic quality of the exotics on every ranch remains a critically important factor.   

Engage with organizations and landowners working with the same species in their natural ranges, so that there is firsthand knowledge of potential reintroduction or exchange or buy/sell opportunities and the requirements related to this. Wildlife species the world over are diminishing rapidly. Who knows where or when will arise the next hoofstock species in need of help to boost fast diminishing wild or extant populations. It has started, and is going to escalate.

Engage with academic institutions and government agencies to promote and facilitate research and advisory services on the exotic wildlife ranches of willing landowners: (a) on the wildlife (e.g. genetics, behavior, nutrition), on the range (e.g. plant, soil, water and habitat condition) and on diseases; and (b) to determine and then monitor the modern economics of exotic wildlife ranching, just as done with many other industries.

It is expensive to reintroduce animals to their far away natural range and requires significant logistics. Slowly building a fund for this, to contribute to the costs the ranch owners might face if and when they come to engage in this, is something to be considered. 

All this to develop and promote the place and role of the exotic wildlife ranching industry in species conservation and in the local, state and national economy. Therefore, and with justification, to brand the association as a true “conservation” organization in addition to everything else it is, and stands for. Just keeping animals and enjoying their presence is not in itself doing conservation. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It does mean there is untapped opportunity for your animals to serve an even greater good. They could also be saving – conserving – their species!     

End Story

According to a study by Texas A&M University the economic impact of the exotic wildlife industry in rural America was about $1.3 billion and created more than 14,300 jobs annually in rural areas, in 2007. That was a decade ago. Today, it is estimated by the EWA that there are about 1 million exotics of about 135 species on Texas ranches alone. The economic impact, jobs creation scenario and most excitingly the species conservation potential of the industry today, must be significantly greater than it was in 2007. So, what is it?

We know who the BIG fish are in the wildlife conservation industry pond. We know that any single individual wildlife ranch, by comparison, can only be a small fish in that pond.  But by coming together in the best interests of exotic wildlife species conservation and applying best species conservation practices for both exotic and native species on their land, the exotic game ranchers could make the collective membership of the EWA a BIG fish in international exotic wildlife conservation – providing a safe reservoir of soundly managed herds for a great many and growing numbers of hoofstock species of the World. Isn’t this an exciting and noble challenge to rise to in an age where native range and the wildlife needing it are declining rapidly the world over?

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