Ever since the onset of the rapid development of wildlife production on privately owned land in South Africa, the concepts of game ranching and game farming have been used loosely and interchangeably. However, especially recently they have evolved into two distinct enterprises, each with its own principles, restraints, and benefits. Moreover, wildlife production in southern Africa has become lucrative and professional, requiring clear definitions of the semantics involved. Yet many of the operatives in the wildlife industry still often use erroneous and confusing terminology, which reflects poorly on the image of the industry. The very term game is in itself often used out of correct context too. By definition, game denotes a hunted animal.
Most of game ranches also contain animals that are not hunted; the more correct term for them should therefore rather be wildlife ranches. The benefits to wildlife ranchers should also be developed that are linked to the proper professional management of their animal and plant resources, and of their client needs and expectations (Bothma 2002). An ecosystem can be described as that area where the interdependent interaction between biotic (organic or living) and abiotic (inorganic or non-living) components and/or subsystems take place within a spatially regulated organisation through the use of energy and variety of raw materials (Hugo, Viljoen and Meeuwis 1997). A disturbance or change in any facet of an ecosystem has a ripple effect on the entire system and can lead to displacements and adjustments. Adjustments usually occur over two to three decades, and this timescale should be taken into account when evaluating the effect that management policies have on a game ranch.
In game ranch management, it is of primary importance to know that no precisely repeatable patterns exist in nature. Each game ranch is in itself unique and consists of a combination of abiotic factors such as soil and climate, and biotic factors such as animals and plants are unique to that particular ranch. Every ranch should therefore be dealt with and studied on its own merits, and management policies be developed specifically for it (Bothma and Van Rooyen 2002). Plant communities are a group of plant species which are found growing together. Plant communities are preferred rather than plant species for planning purposes because plant communities practically summaries the entire floristic diversity and integrate the able, including distribution and occurrence of rare and endangered species, degree of man’s influence, pristineness and degration, vegetation dynamics, habits for animal species as well as many of the ecological relationships between these various aspects (Bredenkamp and Brown 2001).
Vegetation is the most important factor for environmental planning. Vegetation is explained as a structurally and floristically defined unit of plant communities, which are similar climatic, geological and soil requirements, have a similar ecosystem process, and thus have similar management and conservation requirements as well as potential uses (Low and Rebelo 1998). A community is composed of individuals and of population, and can be identified and studied straight forward collective properties, such as species diversity, community biomass, and productivity. The combination of plant species and environment represent a plant community. Effective procedures of vegetation survey must be considered as initial game ranch management planning. Vegetation survey should include a nutritional assessment, soil nutrient survey, habitat analysis, and environmental survey. A vegetation survey is highly required for environmental planning, to determine agro-ecological state of the field, environmental conservation and ecosystem. Total species composition not only provides information on the biodiversity of the site, but also provides an indication an indication of the environment and ecology.
Different species which are found together in a same type of environment have a similar tolerance of the habitat. Studies in community ecology often require the identification of species-environment relationship from community composition data and associated habitat measurements in order to assist in identifying management units (Ter Braak 1986). The science of wildlife management has evolved rapid over the past few decades. In the past many land owners believed that they could manage their game ranches or reserves without professional input, but that perception has changed radically. Managing a wildlife area according to sound ecological wildlife management principles is currently accepted to be necessity, to ensure healthy wildlife population and healthy habitat. The purpose of each wildlife area determines which management approach is most suitable. Game ranches for instance, are often managed with a view to maximise sustainable utilisation of the wildlife resources.
A well developed management plan is most important in wildlife ranches, because human interference is inhibiting natural ecosystem equilibrium and processes. The need for active management increases when animals are kept in areas in smaller than those occurring under natural habitats. The smaller the ranch or nature reserve, the greater the intensity of wildlife management is required. The ranching of small and large animals, the fencing of land, and the introduction of veterinary science to wildlife has major impact on wild animals. Game ranch management and the management of nature reserves are the two facets of wildlife management. The intensity of management in the nature reserves and game ranches depends upon the size of the area. Wildlife management begins as soon as an area is demarcated as a unit on a map.
No development, especially that of a larger nature, should take place before the limitations and potential of the environment have been thoroughly determined. The major point of departure for wildlife management is an inventory of all the natural resources, including the presences and numbers of game in a given area (Bothma 2002). There are two types of wildlife management: active management and passive management. Active management involves the manipulation of game and their habitat while passive management involves the prevention of any human influence. Only active management should be applied on a game ranch which has proper fencing, and relatively small area. The aim of ecological management plan for a game ranch is to give scientifically based advice regarding the management options and recommendations. This will allow for sustainable use of the ranch without deterioration of the environment.
Key aspects of the game and their habitats should be monitored, so if problems arise be identified in time and management adjustments can be made accordingly. This is known as an active adaptive management plan. The different assessment technique used in this study can be applied for monitoring purposes. It is of great importance to monitor the vegetation changes at specific intervals in order to keep the stocking rate of game at an optimum capacity, without detrimental effects to the environment. An ecological management plan is based on the evaluation of the following factors:
- Inventory of all resources including geology, hydrology, phytosociology, flora and fauna
- The establishment of the potential for a specific area
- Determining the thresholds of change for the area
- Identify the specific objectives as given by the owner or the manager
Recommendations on reaching these objectives without adversely affecting the environment and the last factor is monitoring the effects of the applied management principles With a sound management plan, veld and wildlife can be exploited without exceeding the maximum ecologically sustainability. An additional objective is the conservation of the ecosystem, considering that only 6 percent of South-Africa is officially declared as conservation areas and only 3 percent covered by national parks, in comparison with 13% of the country’s land area being wildlife ranches. The study was conducted in Highlands Wilderness Game Ranch. The study includes a phytosociological study of plant communities, the assessment of veld condition and grazing capacity, the assessment of available browse, the study of animal population dynamics, an estimation of herbaceous plant biomass, calculation of ecological capacity and management recommendations. However, the first priority for the management of Highlands Wildernis Game Ranch would be to decide on proper land use option and applying sound ecological principles as recommended.