Golden wildebeest are regal animals
In 1991, there were three golden wildebeest in private ownership. Twenty-four years on, an estimated 1,500 of these unique animals graze on South African ranches. Back then, the golden wildebeest was scarcer than the king cheetah. Even blue wildebeest were under threat as only four farms in the Limpopo Province were allowed to have wildebeest walk their land.
Estimates indicate that there were less than 1,000 blue wildebeest in private ownership at that time. Cattle farmers considered wildebeest to be vermin, shooting them on sight so as to protect their livestock from game-borne diseases.
Originating from the Limpopo river basin, adjacent to the Tuli Block of Botswana, the golden wildebeest has existed in and amongst migratory herds for ages. The earliest records of sporadic sightings of golden wildebeest date as far back as the 1920s, when farmers in Botswana and Zimbabwe spoke of seeing yellow cattle walking the veld. On the South African side, farmers referred to them as the “Vos Wildebeest”.
Alec Rough is widely acknowledged as having captured the first golden wildebeest bull on the game farm Swinburne 70 years later.
Another man who was instrumental in the initial protection and conservation of golden wildebeest, is Barry York of Golden Breeders. His first encounter with these regal animals was in 1986, when a hunter had shot one illegally. “I remember when we went to load it,” recalls York. “It was lying there in the dust. It was the most beautiful animal I had ever seen in my life. I decided then and there that I had to start protecting these animals and so I managed to obtain my first golden bull in 1991 and proceeded with my own breeding programme. I did not do it for the money,” York says. “I did it because someone had to protect and conserve the golden wildebeest.”
Some ranchers regard the golden wildebeest as the most majestic colour variant of all. It is probable that this wildebeest emerged in the Tuli Block region because its golden colour has an adaptive function. Generally, dark coloured animals are better equipped to cope with cooler climates while lighter, pigmented, animals are better adapted to dealing with hot conditions.
Dr Deon Furstenburg of the Agricultural Research Council, now involved at Geo Wild, says because the golden wildebeest originated naturally in southern Botswana, they are themselves strong animals and a self-sustaining entity on their own. “Their golden colour is due to a recessive gene and it should be made clear that the appearance of a recessive gene within an existing population holds no negative implications for an animal. People who claim that skin cancer poses a risk to golden wildebeest are wrong. The recessive gene does not weaken an animal.
Furstenburg does, however, warn game farmers of the dangers regarding inbreeding, and says it will result in weaker animals. This is not because they possess the recessive gene, but because of poor management. He further states that there is a difference between colour variations and albinism, the latter of which makes an animal susceptible to developing cancer.
York, who has been breeding with golden wildebeest for the past 25 years, says his animals are just as resilient to ticks and parasites as their blue counterparts.
“They are tough animals. Are they inferior to ‘normal’ wildebeest? Absolutely not. Through all my years as a breeder, I have not encountered one case of cancer in any of my animals. Why is it that all desert dwelling animals are lighter in colour? The colour of the golden wildebeest makes them more adapted to warmer climes.”
York goes on to explain the advantages of the recessive gene in other animals such as the Addo elephants. “The dominant gene in these elephants dictates that they are tusk-less. The recessive gene provides for tusks. Thus the recessive gene in this instance, as it is with the golden wildebeest of the Tuli Block, helps the animal to survive better,” York says.
Wildebeest cows are known for being very protective of their calves. This makes calves a difficult target for predators such as jackal, caracal and brown hyena. With a 90% conception rate, and an equally impressive birth-rate, golden wildebeest are perfect for those wanting to enter the scarce game breeding industry. A budget of a million rand will get you started. A golden bull can be bought for R700,000.00. Add 20 blue cows from between R10,000.00 and R30,000.00 an animal to the mix, and a new breeder is set to see a massive return on his investment.
A word of advice from York: “Go for it!” he says. “Start building up your herd. The golden wildebeest has a fantastic future because they are fertile and tough animals. What’s more they are perfectly adapted to their environment and this is what every farmer should strive for: to farm unique, beautiful, highly adaptive animals.”