Black impala: Breeding for horn length; using split rams
The Pilanesberg Game Breeders auction on May the 2nd 2015 highlighted the importance of breeding for horn length. Lot 2 was sold for R3,2 million. It was neither a buffalo bull nor a golden wildebeest, but a 23 inch-plus black impala ram. Twenty-three inches is not particularly massive in terms of normal-coloured impala, but it is right up there with the best of them when it comes to trophy black impala rams.
But why are the midnight rams falling behind?
Dr Deon Furstenburg of the Agricultural Research Council, now involved at Geo Wild, blames it on a lack of genetic diversity. “The black impala population has been bred out of a select few individuals. It has become evident that these ‘initial’ rams and ewes were of a stock not particularly known for possessing massive horns.”
Furstenburg goes on to explain that the subsequent inbreeding and line breeding practices employed by some ranchers to grow their black herds, further weakened the population. “This does not mean the black impala is doomed. On the contrary, these animals have a bright future within the South African wildlife industry. However, it is in the best interest of all parties concerned that every breeder should adhere to sound and disciplined genetic management.”
The country’s top ranchers and breeders have begun to incorporate this wisdom into their breeding of black impala. One such man is Johan van der Merwe of Leopard Rock Game Breeders. Van der Merwe has been breeding with these animals for the past 14 years and today adopts an approach of taking a step backwards to take two steps forward. At the forefront of Van der Merwe’s endeavour to breed world-class trophy black impala is the largest known living normal-coloured impala ram, measuring a staggering 28 and ⅛ of an inch.
Van der Merwe has placed this ram with some of his black ewes to produce split lambs who will inherit their father’s prime genetics. The female offspring of these split lambs will in turn be mated with one of Van der Merwe’s 24 inch-plus black rams, all in the hope of one day producing massive black trophies.
Van der Merwe explains it is a matter of refocussing one’s energy. “I want to breed black rams that are strong in stature with horns exceeding the 26 inch mark. This is not going to be done in the next year or two, but my goal is to achieve this in four years’ time. To achieve this, one has to strengthen the genetic makeup of your herd. It all comes down to paying special attention to quality, rather than quantity. This applies to any farmer, whether he farms with sheep, cattle or game. Those who breed with the best genetics will survive any fluctuation in the market.”
With Safari Club International’s recognition of the black impala in its record books, ranchers like Van der Merwe are setting their sights on marketing their animals to the hunting industry in much the same way as the Springbok Grand Slam. The grand slam is achieved when a hunter has successfully hunted a white, black, copper and normal-coloured springbok in one hunting trip. Van der Merwe says he is planning to offer a similar package in the winter of 2017, which will then consist of a white, black, saddleback and normal-coloured impala. It is easy to see the economic benefit of a hunting client paying for four animals of the same species instead of one.
But how does a new breeder get started? Or more importantly, how does a breeder optimise what he already has? For instance, using a split ram in his impala breeding programme.
Charné Buitendach, Technical Advisor at Wildlife Stud Services, says with the discovery of the black impala gene by the University of Pretoria, it is finally possible to use split rams (Bb) in breeding programmes and accurately determine the outcome.
Buitendach explains that when split rams (Bb) are mated to normal ewes (BB), approximately half of the offspring will theoretically inherit one black gene (b) from the ram and will therefore be split (Bb) for the black colour. The other half will inherit both normal genes from the parents and these offspring will be normal impala (BB).
“In the past it was a guessing game determining which half of the offspring did indeed carry the black gene, because all the offspring display the normal (wild type) colour. Impala breeders tried to associate some phenotypical characteristics with the split impala animals, like black stripes on the face, or darkening on the legs and back, but this proved to be inaccurate, as some buyers can attest. The only proof a breeder had in order to confirm true split impala (Bb) was by mating black rams (bb) to normal (BB) or split (Bb) ewes and verifying the paternity of the normal coloured offspring, of which the only outcome could be a split lamb (Bb), if the sire was indeed the black ram. As a result, most impala breeders stayed away from using split rams (Bb) because of the unpredictable outcomes, whereas in contrast the black impala rams (bb) had predictable outcomes in breeding programmes with normal (BB) or split ewes (Bb).”
Buitendach says that upon discovery of the black gene, the progeny of split rams can be DNA tested to confirm which 50% did indeed inherit the black gene. “As a result, split rams can now make a valuable contribution to your herd and should not be overlooked as an option in your impala breeding programme, especially if you are a new breeder.”
The late veterinarian Dr Dirk Neethling is widely acknowledged as having pioneered the breeding of black impala. As a young boy, Neethling’s life changed when he came across the skin of one. He decided to make it his life’s mission to capture a black impala to start with his own breeding project. When an opportunity arose to capture a ram in the Gravelotte area, Neethling was devastated to hear the animal had been shot by a hunter prior to his arrival. His trials continued through the late 80s until he struck success in 1991. Today Neethling’s son Arnold, is fostering his father’s legacy. Arnold is the owner of Botlierskop Private Game Reserve in the Western Cape, and says the passion his father had shown for the black impala is testament to the animal’s beauty and grace.
“The black impala adds colour to our industry. Colour variants in general makes the wildlife sector interesting and exciting,” Arnold Neethling enthuses.
But what about the market? Is what we are seeing today in any way similar to what we have seen in the past few years?
Van der Merwe has been documenting market trends for black impala sales over the past 15 years. He says this year’s trend is nothing new. “It is interesting to note that the price of black rams skyrocket in January, February and March, after which the price stabilises again for the remainder of the year. The same is true for black ewes in the months of August, September, October and November. I predict this cycle will repeat itself for years to come.”
And the challenges?
According to Van der Merwe, his biggest challenge in the beginning was to ignore all the doomsayers warning him of a “bubble”. “I no longer pay them any attention,” Van der Merwe says. “Even if the price for black impala drops by 75%, I will still make more money than the other guy who is breeding sheep or cattle. Plus, I do more for conservation than those who are jealous of me.”
According to Van der Merwe the black impala has a great future. “They are different. This is what I love about them. I bought them initially out of curiosity. They’ve intrigued me ever since.”