By Sergio Chapa, San Antonio Busines Journal
Jan 6, 2017, 8:40am CST Updated Jan 6, 2017, 12:53pm CST
A letter from a 10-year-old girl that Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch Education Director Tiffany Soechting received a few days before Christmas warmed her heart.
The girl wrote to ask how she could help save the giraffe — a couple of weeks after the International Union for Conservation of Nature had placed the world’s tallest animal on the endangered species list. In her letter, the girl offered to make a poster and show her class. Moved by the heartfelt letter, Soechting made the girl an honorary “giraffe ambassador” for Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch and sent her a T-shirt for the San Antonio-based giraffe conservation program.
“You can’t go to Africa and save them, but you can create awareness,” Soechting wrote in her reply.
With the giraffe facing widespread habitat loss across subsaharan Africa, wildlife experts believe there are fewer than 98,000 of them left in the wild. But as the long-necked animal’s population dwindles, a growing number of them are finding homes the Texas Hill Country and South Texas, where private ranches, breeders and collectors are providing hope for the species.
The San Antonio Zoo has three reticulated giraffes in its collection, while Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch has 11 of them. Soechting told the Business Journal that 27 giraffes have been born at the drive-thru exotic animal ranch over the past 30 years. Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch made international headlines in May 2013 when twin giraffes were born there. With a gestation period that lasts up to 15 months, twins are rare among giraffes.
Concerned that the reticulated giraffe could become extinct in the wild, Soechting said the ranch balances its for-profit business with conservation and education. Part of its approach, she said, is allowing visitors to the ranch to feed giraffes from their cars.
“When people have a connection to an animal, it makes them more vested in caring more about what happens to that species,” Soechting said.
Breeding giraffes has become a lucrative business amid rising demand by exotic animal ranches and private collectors. Pleasant weather, favorable laws and regulations and a lucrative exotic animal market have made Texas a center for the emerging industry.
Brian Gilroy with San Antonio-based WildLife Partners LLC told the Business Journal that a male giraffe is worth $25,000 to $30,000, while a sexually mature and fertile female is worth $125,000 to $150,000. With demand for the animals on the rise, Gilroy has built a breeding facility for the Rothschild’s giraffe at the exotic animal company’s ranch near Ingram.
According to figures from the International Species Information System, there are 190 zoos with a total of 553 giraffes in the United States. The number of them in private collections is not known, but Gilroy said it is believed to be much higher.
Giraffes are not hunted on Texas ranches; rather, Gilroy said they are used to draw visitors. The 74 Ranch off FM 791 near Campbellton, which offers big-game hunting, has 30 giraffes that have become a “photo safari” attraction. The Ox Hunting Ranch off FM 334 near Uvalde has 43 species available for hunting and has nine reticulated giraffes that visitors are allowed to hand feed.
“Texas is considered to be like Noah’s Ark for species all over the world,” Gilroy told the Business Journal.
Importing and exporting
Successful breeding programs in Texas aside, importing new giraffes from Africa or sending them from the Lone Star State back to the savannas is not easy.
After retiring as collection manager with the Riverbanks Zoo in South Carolina, Alan Shoemaker has become an expert in importing and exporting exotic game animals. The zoologist-turned-consultant said the 90-day quarantine process enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is so expensive and so stressful on the animals that few people attempt it.
But with the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Zoo being the only two facilities that can import giraffes and other animals from Africa into the United States, Shoemaker said collectors buy them from private breeders selling animals descended from specimens that were originally imported decades ago.
Shoemaker said inbreeding is not a problem the U.S. — where there is a well-managed, self-sustaining breeding population of giraffes — but that under current laws, sending them back to their native habitat is just as lengthy, expensive and stressful as it is to import them.
“Yes, you can increase herd sizes, but that doesn’t mean that we’ll be sending these giraffes back to Africa,” he said.
The author, Sergio Chapa covers manufacturing and the energy industry. Click here to view original article