The unprecedented challenges caused by the novel coronavirus have wreaked havoc throughout the entire wildlife industry. Without swift government intervention, game farmers are fearful that their industry worth billions will soon bleed out completely.
Game farming was initially listed as an essential service in level five of the lockdown, but since the industry is highly dependent on travel and tourism, it was paralysed anyway.
Free State game farmer Xolile Dasheka tells Food For Mzansi: “My business is at a complete standstill. If there is no intervention from government, I fear that I will have to lay off some staff.”
The owner of Imvelo Safari, situated 25 km outside Bloemfontein, says he has had no revenue since the start of lockdown.
Yet, he has had to continue paying for the upkeep of his farm and accommodation facility. A monthly insurance payment to Santam of R27 000, a DSTV description of R12 000 and much more form part Dasheka’s expenses.
He says the reality of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s lockdown announcement in March is beginning to dawn on him.
“We may have not understood what it meant then, but now that we are in it, it is clear what it means. It means no income at all. I fully understand that now,” he says.
Despite struggling under the pandemic, Dasheka is grateful that he has been able to pay salaries through UIF payouts.
“I don’t want to act like a person who lacks appreciation. The UIF payouts have really helped and I really appreciate that.”
But, Dasheka says, “all farmers are affected. Whether you are a game or livestock farmer, we are equally affected. Whether your turnover is less than a R3 million, we are equally affected because there is no income.”
Dasheka, along with other game farmers, woke up to news on 6 April that only small-scale farmers would benefit from government’s R1.2 billion financial aid to Mzansi’s farmers. Commercial farmers like Dasheka were told that they did not qualify because their gross income exceeded R1 million per annum.
“Another issue,” Dasheka tells Food For Mzansi, “is that the government has given the loan guarantee scheme to commercial banks. The requirements are still the same and a very small percentage of people will qualify.”
The multi-billion loan guarantee scheme announced in April by Ramaphosa is intended to help businesses with an annual turnover of less than R300 million to meet operational expenses.
Dasheka says: “I didn’t even apply, because banks require guarantee and collateral. There’s just too much red tape.”
But he hopes that government will find another way to mitigate game farmers’ challenges and that a “second round” of funding considers commercial farmers.
According to Adri Kitshoff, CEO of Wildlife Ranching South Africa (WRSA), all four fundamental pillars (live game trade, hunting, eco-tourism, and game products) in game farming were negatively affected. This had a direct impact on employment in the industry.
“[WRSA members] have an average of 15 permanent workers in game farming and by the end of April 67% of those families were already negatively affected. Either through reduced wages, unpaid leave, or being made redundant,” she says.
The trouble started when international hunters who were planning to visit South Africa cancelled their arrangements for the year due to covid-19.
A survey conducted by WRSA indicates an 86% decline of eco hunters visiting game farms in March and April. Game sales showed a 52% decline by the end of April.
These major losses recently pushed the wildlife industry to consult the minister of environmental affairs, Barbara Creecy, to urgently relax regulations in level three and allow subsistence hunting.
This will mean that farmers will be allowed to hunt for the primary purpose of obtaining his or her own protein, like any other agricultural product.
“[The wildlife industry] has been in talks with the minister, qualifying why subsistence hunting should be allowed,” Kitshoff says.
She explains that hunting is a form of harvesting. Without harvesting the animals there will be an over-population of animals. There will be overgrazing, following on the most severe drought in decades.
With the country going into level three lockdown on 1 June, the wildlife industry waits on government to publish the national disaster management regulations. This will be followed by the department’s direction on what will happen next.
“We want to believe that hunting will be allowed in level three,” Kitshoff says.