Saving exotics to earn a living

Gloria Hafemeister
Now Media Group



When a group of U.S. farmers visited with Sebastian Aceya on his South African farm recently, he was just completing the corn harvest. A severe drought that he described as South Africa's worst drought since the 1930s resulted in parched fields and low yields.

'In a normal year, we get about 165 bushel on an acre, but this year we're getting half of that,' he said. 'It doesn't even pay to harvest some of the fields, so we'll turn them over to the livestock for grazing.'

The livestock that will graze these fields, however, are not like those typically found on U.S. farms. Aceya, like many of his neighbors, raises African exotic animals, hoping to increase their population and at the same time make enough to earn a living.

While some game farms are for safaris or hunting, Aceya breeds in hopes of having animals to sell.

Roaming the vast acreage on his fenced in farm are white rhinos, wildebeests, sable antelope and eland.

He switched from more traditional livestock to game animals 13 years ago, beginning with 30 rhinos. Every three years, a rhino has a calf. They have a gestation period of 16-18 months, and a rhino will live up to 40 years. He now has 60 rhinos on his farm.

'When I started, I bought heifers in calf, so we increased in number a little faster.' Aceya said. 'It takes seven years for a calf to mature. We have one bull for every 15 calves.'

When he needs to handle the animals, Aceya puts a lot of rhino manure down to lure them to the loading or unloading area.

Security guards needed

The animals have plenty of area to graze, but feeding malt to the growing young animals is expensive. Still, Aceya said the feed is not the limiting factor for the number he can keep.

'Security guards are expensive, so we can't have more animals,' he said. 'People want to steal the rhino for horns. Trading of rhino horns is now legal. They can get up to $125,000 per kilogram for the horn, and that results in poaching.'

'We as farmers can't get that much, though. We sell it to a broker for a lot less.'

Aceya will cut a bull's horn if they fight. They grow back but are not the same. When he needs money, he will cut one and sell it to raise money to continue the business. However, he tries not to cut the cow's horns.

The white rhino has been brought back from the brink of extinction, thanks in part to conservation efforts and the willingness of farmers like Aceya to breed, feed and protect them.

Despite the fact that they are on private farms, these animals are still at risk due to a huge surge in poaching to meet demand for illegal rhino horns, primarily in Asian countries. Conservationists throughout Africa are stepping up their efforts to stop the poaching, and while it has improved, poaching is still a serious problem.

White rhinos are graziers and work well on these grass-based farms, while black rhinos are browsers and do better in the African bush where they can eat twigs and branches. In addition, black rhinos are not as calm as white rhinos.

Besides the rhino, Aceya also raises sable antelope and about 200 wildebeests.

Just down the road from Aceya's farm, another farmer switched from cattle-raising to caring for other exotics, such as lions. Ranchers in the area who have down cows provide the much-needed feed for these animals.

Drought tests farmers

Poverty in Africa means problems for exotics, and so does drought. Exotics are starving because of drought that killed trees and grass and dried up the watering holes.

Africa does not have a welfare system, so unemployed people are desperate. Crime is high, and some have turned to poaching to make some money.

Throughout the country, sheep farmers also hire security guards to discourage theft of animals.

Fruit growers have problems with theft as well. Many of those peddling fruit on busy highways have obtained it illegally overnight from area orchards. This type of sales is known by the locals as 'affirmation shopping.'

On street corners, women hold small children and beg for money to feed their family. If they do not have any children of their own, they may 'rent a child' in order to solicit handouts.