FORT WORTH, Texas -- For years, hundreds of Texas ranchers have made big money on exotic antelopes, with hunters paying up to $10,000 to bag just one dama gazelle, a rare animal with short horns curving outward.
Starting Wednesday, however, the U.S. government will stop allowing anyone to hunt the dama gazelle or two other exotic antelopes native to Africa, the addax and the scimitar-horned oryx – unless ranchers obtain a permit.
The move to give the animals full protection under the federal Endangered Species Act is being praised by animal-rights groups that abhor such hunts and has upset the ranchers whose efforts have led to a rise in the numbers of those exotic animals. The ranchers say they won't be able to afford the upkeep for their antelopes – but they also can't legally kill the entire herds or release them.
Texas has the largest population of the animals in the world – far more than even their native Africa. In 1979, Texas had less than three dozen scimitar-horned oryx, just two addax and nine dama gazelles, according to the Exotic Wildlife Association. But by 2010, the state had more than 11,000 scimitar-horned oryx, about 5,100 addax and nearly 900 dama gazelles, according to the association
Knowing that the new regulations were set to take effect, some ranchers have sold their exotic antelopes. But prices have dropped by up to 40 percent and will drop an additional 50 percent after Wednesday, said Charly Seale, executive director of the Texas-based Exotic Wildlife Association.
The ranchers can apply for federal permits to continue the hunts, but most are refusing because they say it's government intrusion. Seale said just 10 percent of ranchers have sought the permits and he does not expect more to apply. Others are so irate they've threatened to kill the herds or just set them free, but that may not happen because both options are illegal under the federal act, Seale said.
"They are very prolific and had been valuable because a lot of people wanted to hunt them," Seale said. "We've built our herds with our own money, and we increased an extinct population, one of the biggest conservation efforts in the world. And now they're telling us we can't do it? It's ridiculous."
The scimitar-horned oryx, which has horns up to 4 feet long curving toward its back, was declared extinct in the wild in 2000. The three species were listed on the Endangered Species Act, but they were exempt from the no-hunting rule by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Now the rule is being enforced so the animals won't be killed in "canned hunts," said Priscilla Feral, president of the Connecticut-based Friends of Animals that successfully challenged that exemption.
"The ranchers care about offering them in trophy hunts on property from which they cannot escape," Feral said. "They only live so they can die. To call that conservation is ludicrous."
Ranchers allowed just 10-15 percent of their herds to be killed each year, said Seale, who has a South Texas ranch with exotic animals. The dama gazelle is the rarest of the three, but hunters still shelled out big bucks for the others – up to $5,000 for the chance to bag a scimitar-horned oryx and $7,000 for an addax, known for its long, thin, spiral-shaped horns.
Because trophy hunters have known that the hunting restriction was approaching, they have flocked to Texas ranches in recent months, thinning the herds even more. But ranchers – even those with other exotic animals that are not affected by the rule – say they're left with few options. The herds are too expensive to feed without the hunting revenues, and obtaining a permit means the government can make unannounced inspections.
"We've applied for permits, but the process is cumbersome," said Aaron Bulkley, owner of the Texas Hunt Lodge, which has 23 ranches northwest of San Antonio. "This rule will have a major impact to our business. There is no fix to this."
Only a few animal sanctuaries for such animals exist, and "they don't want 100; they want two or four," Bulkley said. The Exotic Wildlife Association plans to send about two dozen of the animals to a nature preserve in Senegal.
The rule will not only hurt the $1.3 billion exotic animal industry in Texas but will cause the scimitar-horned oryx population to be reduced to 1,000 in a decade, Seale said.
However, the animals becoming extinct in Texas is better than what's been going on, Feral said.
"Now they're saying they will shoot them now rather than later," she said. "(Having the three species in Texas) is not an advantage to anyone other than those in the hunting business."