By Ed Stoddard
WOLMARANSSTAD, South Africa (Reuters) - A drought that has hit crops and economic growth in South Africa is also causing pain for specialist game ranchers who breed animals like antelope and buffalo to cater for tourists and hunters.
Game prices are mostly down as ranchers cut herds in the face of parched grazing and soaring costs for supplements like lucerne, a protein-rich hay-like crop which has almost doubled in price the past year to 4,000 rand ($280) a ton.
But record prices are still being fetched for iconic species such as buffalo, highlighting the resilience of this asset class at the luxury end.
Pieter Ernst Jr, whose family raises game 250 km (155 miles) west of Johannesburg, said the costs of feeding his prized sable antelope have doubled the past year, but he can leave nothing to chance: one of his studs, "Magic", has been valued at 19 million rand ($1.3 million).
Magic is indeed a majestic specimen - jet black in color, with a regal demeanor and a huge rack of curled horns.
"We have been feeding them every day for the past two years. We just hope it rains," Ernst said as his sable herd tucked into its midday meal - a mix of feed put into rubber bowls fashioned from tires.
Game ranching is big business in South Africa. Catering to the ecotourist and hunting sectors, and investors who see prize breeding animals as an asset, it has been growing 20 percent per year for the past 15 years, according to industry data.
"According to our estimates, the industry is worth in excess of 20 billion rand," said Flippie Cloete, an agricultural economist at South Africa's North West University.
The industry is credited with lifting wildlife numbers and adding value to marginal lands previously used for cattle. It now counts 10,000 ranches.
According to industry estimates, in 1950 there were only a few dozen white rhino left in South Africa. Now there are close to 18,000, with about 30 percent on private ranches.
Over the same period, the population of blesbok, a white-faced antelope, has grown from 2,000 to 250,000, with 90 percent on private land.
Those numbers have now suffered a setback, as prices fall and grazing lands shrivel, though the industry does not have precise estimates on game losses. Ernst said he had to cut his blesbok herd to 250 from 500.
"Game prices this year are down on average about 20 percent," said Adri Kitshoff-Botha, chief executive of Wildlife Ranching South Africa, an industry group.
Rains have returned to parts of South Africa, giving some relief after a severe dry spell triggered by an El Nino weather pattern, but the national weather service said in late October that much of the country remained firmly in drought conditions.
Yet the high end of the market remains drought-resistant. Earlier this year a buffalo bull was auctioned for a record 168 million rand ($11.7 million).
"There is a strong demand for these animals, mainly from well-established game ranchers who are in the process of diversifying their operations, as well as foreign investors," said Cloete.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)