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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Deep in the Heart of Texas

Calauit, in the Philippines, isn't the only place on earth where a assortment of exotic ungulates has been deliberately released into a new habitat.  I could think of examples far closer to home...

I was in high school when I visited Texas for the first time.  I went as part of a school group, guided by a biology teacher who was from the area.  It was my first time really going on "safari" - traveling a great distance from home for the expressed purpose of seeing animals in the wild.  In many ways, the trip was a success.  Over the course of a week of hiking, we encountered a cross-section of the south-central US bestiary, including roadrunners, collared peccaries, coyotes, and a half-dozen species of rattlesnake.  There was one wildlife encounter, however, which truly surprised me.

I was half-dozing in the car as we bounced along the dirt roads from one site to the next when I was woken by one of my classmates exclaiming, "What a funny looking deer!"  Instantly, I was up, nose against the window, hoping for my first glimpse of a pronghorn.  I didn't get it.  Instead, I saw two small hoofed mammals walking daintily across the prairie.  One, the female, could have passed for a pronghorn at a distance, with her tan coat and graceful frame.  Not the male, however.  His fur was jet black on the top, creamy white on the underside, with a pair of corkscrew horns crowning his head.

They were blackbuck antelope, naturally found in South Asia.  And yet here they were in Texas.

If I'd stayed longer in Texas, I might have encountered any of the other several dozen species of Africa, European, or Asian ungulates - deer, cattle, antelope, goats - that roamed the Texas plains.  Beginning with nilgai, another South Asian antelope, imported to the King Ranch in the 1930s, there are now several species loose on the plains.  Some of the interest has been in farming them - many of the animals chosen for release are species that are well adapted to arid grasslands.  A big part of the appeal, however, has been hunting.

Hunting is a big business in Texas, and when there is a big business, you can be sure that there will be a lot of competition for it.  It's not so surprising that some ranchers decided to take creative steps to boost their success.  Sure, they say, you can hunt white-tails on any ranch in the state... but where else can you get a set of kudu horns for your den wall?

Such exotic hunting has (not surprisingly) earned the wrath of animal rights groups who see people killing wild (and often endangered) animals for sport and profit.  It's not that cut and dry, however.  This is especially evident with three Sahelo-Saharan antelopes - the addax, the dama gazelle (also called the addra gazelle), and the scimitar-horned oryx.  With far more space at their disposal than even the largest zoos could offer, and with incentive to protect them because they were profitable, the game ranchers bred up massive herds of the critically endangered antelope.  Some of these animals are being contributed to reintroduction efforts in their native range.  For many years these ranchers were granted exemption from the Endangered Species Act regulations that limited the ability to buy, sell, and move these animals, but that has been challenged by animal rights groups.

There is no doubt that the conservation of these desert antelope has been positively impacted by their presence in the southwestern United States.  But again, lest things seem too cut and dry, black and white, there always remain the risks that these introduction schemes could pose dire consequences for the native wildlife and their habitats.  Consider the southeastern United States, where wild boar were introduced, also for hunting - and have since torn up the forests and swamps of the south.

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