It’s easy to spot Columbus. He’s not only the biggest and strongest gnu among the dozens grazing on a South African plain, he also sports a golden-hued coat, a stunning contrast to the gray and black gnus around him.
Finding Columbus in the wild would be a stroke of amazing luck. More than 99.9 percent of all wild gnus, also called wildebeest, from the Afrikaans for “wild beast,” have dark coats. But this three-year-old golden bull and his many offspring are not an accident. They have been bred specially for their unusual coloring, which is coveted by big game hunters.
These flaxen creatures are the latest craze in South Africa’s $1 billion ultra-high-end big-game hunting industry. Well-heeled marksmen pay nearly $50,000 to take a shot at a golden gnu — more than 100 times what they pay to shoot a common gnu. Breeders are also engineering white lions with pale blue eyes, black impalas, white kudus, and coffee-colored springboks, all of which are exceedingly rare in the wild.
“We breed them because they’re different,” says Barry York, who owns a 2,500-acre ranch about 135 miles east of Johannesburg. There, he expertly mates big game for optimal — read: unusual — results. “There’ll always be a premium paid for highly-adapted, unique, rare animals.”
This kind of selective breeding to create exotic animals has raised howls from conservationists and more traditional hunters, who dismiss the practice as little more than creating mutants for profit. “These animals are Frankenstein freaks of nature,” says Peter Flack, a hunter and conservationist and former chairman of gold mining company Randgold Resources. “This has nothing to do with conservation and everything to do with profit.”
No one disputes that there’s money to be made in rare big game. Africa Hunt Lodge, a U.S.-based tour operator, advertises “hunt packages” to international clients traveling to South Africa that include killing a golden gnu for $49,500, a black impala for $45,000, and a white lion for $30,000. For the money, hunting tourists typically get a seven- to 14-night stay in a luxury lodge, gourmet food with an emphasis on meat dishes, and hunting permits. (Taxidermy costs extra.)
Operators don’t guarantee kills, yet to leave hunters disappointed is generally seen as bad business, says Peet van der Merwe, a professor of tourism and leisure studies at South Africa’s North-West University. Killing lions was the biggest revenue generator for the country’s hunting industry in 2013, followed by buffalo, kudu, and white rhinos.
As the hunting industry has grown, so have the numbers of large game animals that populate South Africa’s grasslands. In other parts of Africa, including Kenya and Tanzania, the opposite has been true: Large mammal populations have been decimated as farms and other human activities encroached on wild areas. But South Africa is one of only two countries on the continent to allow ownership of wild animals, giving farmers such as York an incentive to switch from raising cattle to breeding big game. ‘‘My first priority is to generate an income from the animals on my land, but conservation is a by-product of what I do,” York says.
At 66, York has been involved in breeding and hunting for decades. After he emigrated from his native Zimbabwe in 1980, he bred prize cattle for beef in South Africa’s northern grasslands. He also organized hunts, which gave him the occasion to see his first golden gnu in 1986, when a client killed one. “It was the most beautiful animal I had ever seen,” he says.
In 2007, York bought a farm in Limpopo Province that had previously been used for crops. His plan was to raise beef cattle. That turned out to be a costly mistake. The cows languished, unable to gain weight and poorly adapted to the ticks and other pests prevalent on the hot plains. York found himself shelling out a steady stream of cash for expensive vaccines and veterinary fees. At that rate, “I’d be broke in a year or two,” he says.
York recalled the beautiful golden gnu he had seen more than 20 years earlier and hatched a plan. He figured that, as a native species, gnus were better adapted to the South African grassland than cattle. He would be able to sell them for both hunting and meat, and if he could breed some with exotic coloring, they would command a premium.
His timing was good. The switch coincided with a rise in popularity of big game hunting, and prices for rare variants were soaring. Since 2005, the average price at auction for a golden gnu has more than quadrupled to 404,000 South African rand ($33,000).
Today, York has roughly 600 gnus. He keeps the best — the most fertile and beautiful, with the biggest horns — for breeding. The next tier goes to auction, mostly for sale to other breeders. Animals that don’t make the grade for breeding are sold to hunting ranches, which are typically bigger and more scenic than York’s, giving hunters the feel of the wild African bush. York allows the least-desirable animals to be shot by local hunters for food.
A drive around York’s spread reveals little evidence of its former life as an intensive crop farm growing potatoes, corn and peanuts. Long native grass flickers in the wind as the gnus graze peacefully. The only signs of man are the electric fences York uses to separate his herds. Since he took over the farm, jackals, bat-eared foxes, and caracals, as well as troops of monkeys, have appeared on the land.
“Previously this was crop land with pesticides, chemicals, very few trees, no wildlife,” he says. “Now there are hundreds of wildebeest where there were none for 100 years. The color variants are paying for it.”
Breeding exotic big game is also attracting South Africa’s wealthy, including billionaire Johann Rupert, who controls the world’s largest jewelry maker Cie Financiere Richemont, as well as Norman Adami, ex-chairman of the South African unit of SABMiller, and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. Two years ago, Rupert led a group that paid 40 million rand, for a buffalo named Mystery, specifically bred for his large horns. Ramaphosa, one of South Africa’s wealthiest men, sold impala with white flanks (they are normally copper colored) for 27.3 million rand last September. The same year, York sold a male golden gnu named General Rommel for 1.83 million rand.
“Everyone wants wildebeest,” says York, who received 10 calls from people wanting to buy while a Bloomberg reporter was recently visiting his farm. “We haven’t got enough stock. It’s every day, new people wanting to get in.”
The country now has about 22 million large mammals, including lions, buffalo and many species of antelope, three-fourths of which live on private ranches. Hunting ranches have been widely credited with saving the rhinoceros from extinction in the 1960s, when there were just an estimated 575,000 large wild animals in the country.
“Not a single country in the world has seen such a large increase in animal numbers over the last 50 years,” said Wouter van Hoven, an emeritus professor at the University of Pretoria. “It’s an incredible success story.”
Despite the increase in populations of native species, conservationists deride the methods used by York and his fellow breeders. “What’s happening now is farming,” says Ainsley Hay, manager of the Wildlife Protection Unit of South Africa’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “It’s not conservation. It doesn’t matter if you’re farming cows or impala, it’s a damaging form of land use.”
And in this case, growing numbers of animals don’t indicate conservation, she says. “A white springbok will not contribute to the springbok population because it’s a mutant.”
The NSPCA, which has sent inspectors to game farms and wildlife auctions, Hay says, most color variants would not survive in the wild. White lions get skin diseases, cancers, foot problems, and corkscrew tails. Their faces turn inward, and “white springbok variants are very prone to skin cancer,” she says. “It’s been scientifically proven that black impala are more susceptible to heat stroke.”
Local hunters have a different critique. Flack, the former Randgold chairman, and others claim that breeders are domesticating wildlife, which could threaten the long-term viability of the hunting industry. The South African Hunters and Game Association, a local industry group, last month published a stinging indictment of breeding, saying it amounts to “unnatural manipulation of wildlife” and causes “outrageous prices of huntable animals.”
York dismisses the hunters’ objections, saying they simply want to be able to hunt cheaply. To the NSPCA, he says that he avoids inbreeding by keeping herds separate and that his land is much healthier than when he bought it. As to Flack's charges, York says: “They say these are Frankenstein animals, but where’s the test tube, where's the lab? Sure, the golden color is a rare characteristic, but it occurs in nature.”
York is looking forward to July, when Columbus will be sold at auction. The bull is ready to mate. He sports a horn spread of 30 inches, the length of a softball bat. Does he have a chance of breaking the record 3.4 million-rand paid for a golden gnu? York won’t speculate: “We don’t want people to think we’re arrogant.”
Editors: Rick Schine and Janet Paskin
Design & Development: Sheryl Sulistiawan
Photo Editor: Brent Murray