African Buffalo, Sable Caught in China-Driven Commodity Rout

  • Buffalo, sable, roan prices fall by about a third in 2015
  • Surge in prices since mid-2000s has been called a bubble

Auction prices for African animals ranging from buffaloes to rare antelope plunged last year, joining a global slump in commodities and ending almost a decade of rising values that some in the industry have described as a bubble.

The average African savanna buffalo cost 334,879 rand ($21,800) in 2015, 30 percent lower than the previous year, according to data compiled by Flippie Cloete of the environmental science department at South Africa’s North West University. Prices of sable and roan, both types of antelope, dropped 35 percent to 154,489 rand and 39 percent to 305,050 rand respectively.

The economy in South Africa, the largest market for the continent’s native animals, probably grew at the slowest pace last year since 2009, according to the country’s central bank, as metal prices tumbled amid weaker demand from China. The strain on South African farmers is deepening as the most severe drought since 1992 withers crops.

“The economy struggled in 2015 with agriculture among the worst-hit sectors and the game industry is no exception,” said Niel Swart, a manager at Vleissentraal Bosveld, South Africa’s biggest wildlife auctioneer. “Feed has become more expensive and the drought this year will have a massive impact. Last year it was the economy, this year it will be the drought.”

Before last year, prices for some wildlife in South Africa had risen more than fivefold in six years as the country’s hunting industry grew and farmers decided to switch from raising cattle to breeding game. The game-ranching industry was valued at almost 12 billion rand and growing by 10 percent a year, Barclays Africa Group Ltd. estimated in 2014.

Billionaire Buyers

The industry attracted wealthy investors such as Johann Rupert, who controls the world’s largest jewelry maker, South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and Norman Adami, the former chairman of SABMiller Plc’s local unit.

The cost of a buffalo almost tripled between 2008 and 2013 as farmers sought to buy disease-free animals with the best genetics, especially for big horns desired by hunters. A group including billionaire Rupert bought a male buffalo named Mystery with a 53-inch (1.35 meter) horn span for 40 million rand in 2013, worth $4.1 million at the time. Breeding rare-colored animals such as golden gnus, black impala and white kudu has become big business.

Record prices for some animals persisted late into 2015. A Zambian sable antelope bull was sold for more than double the previous high at a September auction in northern South Africa. Earlier that month, a Kudu bull named Hercules with spiral horns exceeding 66 inches smashed the record by more than three times.

The record-high prices were a bubble inflated by wealthy breeders trading among each other, Chris Niehaus, former head of the South African Hunters and Game Conservation Association, said last year.

“The decline in prices is related to the rest of the economy,” said Swart of Vleissentraal. “That shows this market is not a bubble.”

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