MORANI RIVER RANCH, UVALDE COUNTY, Texas — The asphalt on County Road 405 soon turns to dirt as a truck pushes open a series of six "bump gates" that swing wide, for just enough time for a following car to edge through. Then two electric gates open as the 8-foot wire fences give way to a lodge, a lake and the scrubby vegetation of Hill Country.
This is the African savanna, Texas-style, where the hot climate and hilly terrain mimic parts of the world's second-largest continent. The land — splayed with cedars, live oaks, low-lying blackbrush and the occasional prickly pear cactus — also is home to something far more exotic: three species of endangered African antelope.
Their very existence here depends on a tension between survival and death. To protect these species, ranchers here argue, we must kill them.
The antelope are magnificent: limber, with large, almost undulating horns, different on each species. There's the scimitar-horned oryx, the addax and the dama gazelle, whose horns have a gentle, rising S-curve.
They're nearly extinct in their native habitats of the African savanna. But because of an unusual exemption under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, these animals have thrived into the thousands by being hunted legally on sprawling ranches in the United States. In all, there are more than 5,000 such ranches in Texas, mostly in the south-central region known as Hill Country.
Alongside the antelope exist exotic animals of every stripe, including zebra, African bongos, kangaroo and regal rare Pere David's deer, which are extinct in the wild.
This particular exotic 3,000-acre ranch, like many in Texas, is for sport hunting, what Morani River Ranch owner and master bow-hunter Kevin Reid calls "re-creating the African experience."
The Texas game ranches have the cachet of the wild, providing hunters with the experience, game and trophies of endangered and extinct-in-the-wild animals they want without leaving the United States. A successful trophy hunt can cost up to $15,000, depending on the beast.
Reid is an architect and developer who led safaris to Africa for five years. The name Morani, which came from Reid's time in Tanzania, is Masai, meaning "hunter and protector."
The exotic-ranch owners are in a furious fight with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — and animal rights groups — over having to get permits as of next Wednesday for the three endangered species of African antelope.
The ranchers argue, forcefully, that they've saved the antelope because they haven't had to abide by the Endangered Species Act, which imposes paperwork and accounting requirements, since 2005, giving them the incentive to raise the animals for sport hunting.
Animal activists counter that conservation doesn't mean raising an animal to kill it and put its head on the wall.
"The hunting helps provide the revenue that allows us to purchase these species and feed them," said Reid, who's among a small group of ranchers who are sticking with the antelope through the permitting.
The issue that non-hunters don't see, Reid said, is that the economic value of the animals plummets when there are federal controls. If ranchers aren't free to dictate the terms of an antelope hunt, they'll simply shift to other animals.
And that's the core of the ranchers' argument: The value of the animals, which hunters prize for their rarity and beautiful horns, increased because there were no restrictions from the Endangered Species Act and, as a result, the market incentive grew the herd size.
"The rule change has damaged the species," said Charly Seale, the executive director of the Exotic Wildlife Association in Ingram, Texas, which represents breeders and ranchers with exotic livestock. "Hunting pays for and propagated and promoted these species."
The fact that the three antelope species went from a few dozen when they first arrived in Texas in the late 1970s to more than 17,000 in the organization's 2010 census makes the conservation argument a "no-brainer," said Seale, standing in front of a wall of mounted animal heads.
"They're challenging animals to hunt," said Nyle Maxwell, a West Texas rancher who has four car dealerships in the Austin area. "It provides us pleasure to hunt, meat we enjoy and a trophy on our wall."
Maxwell was getting rid of his scimitar-horned oryx before next week's permit deadline. Interviewed in late March, he was down to seven of the 12 he had on his ranch.
"If we don't have an economic purpose, these animals are going to go away," he said, adding that, "we very much enjoy the meat."
The conservation argument doesn't impress the ranchers' nemesis: Friends of Animals.
"A Texas game ranch is not an ecosystem wherein animals are protected," said Priscilla Feral, the president of Friends of Animals, which successfully sued the government to force the rule change on the African antelope. "They're a commercial product."
And therein lies the philosophical divide over conservation: Ranchers argue that the economics have saved the antelope, while pro-animal activists see sport hunting as destructive, even if it's connected to an increase in the number of endangered animals.
"It's a canned hunt, and to call it an act of conservation is ridiculous," said Feral, who's working to return antelope to reserves in Senegal. "I'd rather see them extinct in Texas than be shot by trophy hunters. They don't belong in Texas."
At the Morani River Ranch, Reid has about 40 scimitar-horned oryx, 50 addax and 25 dama gazelle, with more arriving. A trophy hunt on the ranch can cost a guest a $5,500 fee for the addax, $4,000 for the scimitar-horned oryx and $10,000 for the dama gazelle.
Other trophy hunts are costly, too, ranging from $3,500 for a male zebra to $15,000 for a male sable antelope. Hunters have been calling frantically to beat next week's deadline to be able to hunt the African antelope without worrying about federal oversight.
The hunters stay at the main ranch in hotel-like rooms and suites, among lush appointments with exposed stone and leather. And everywhere here are mounted animal heads — everywhere. Almost all of them shot by the congenial host, Reid, who keeps a massive walk-in wine cellar off the dining room, which provides its own beautiful vistas.
In the morning, before the chef's made-to-order breakfast, the mist over the lake creates an ethereal, otherworldly scene as a bongo ambles by.
For those making the hunt, getting around the ranch is more Africa-esque.
Guests are accompanied by ranch manager Butch Amlong, a crack shot who said his job was to spot the target animal and tell the hunter when to shoot.
"Nobody shoots until I tell them, 'Take your shot,' " said Amlong, perched atop a converted Jeep, accompanying journalists during a two-day search to photograph the scimitar-horned oryx.
The camouflaged Jeep lurched from side to side as it climbed and then rolled down rocky hills that had been cleared of brush, what Amlong impossibly described as "roads." The morning was cool with mild breezes, but still warmer than the evening ride, when the brisk winds and dropping temperatures made for a wintry-like safari ride.
From atop one ridge, the perch from the Jeep's top bench gave sweeping views beyond the ranch — to the Nueces River and a butte on the horizon. The ranch is surprisingly close to the Mexican border — about 60 miles — and sometimes illegal workers are caught crossing the ranch.
Finally, a herd of scimitar-horned oryx was spotted under the clear blue sky. But the brown and white antelope, with brown horns curved like the blade of a scimitar, had a maddening way of disappearing. They seemed to sense that they were being tracked.
Although Amlong instructed the driver, his wife, Kim, to kill the engine at times, the herds, followed by some zebra, took off. Butch Amlong, peering through binoculars, started walking to where he thought they were to "push" them toward the Jeep to be photographed.
Ranchers run water lines and provide feed troughs to supplement the vegetation the animals eat. In searching for the elusive animals, Amlong stopped at feeding troughs and "blinds" used for hunting to get a better view — yet the oryx kept away.
"There's only one end user: the hunter," Amlong said. "Sport hunting is the only end user."
Two hours northeast of Uvalde County, more non-native animals roam the acreage of Larry Johnson's breeding ranch in Boerne. Arriving on a recent morning, visitors found the first sight arresting: Three giraffe — mom, dad and baby — towering over an immaculate yellow ranch house and the low-lying trees and brush.
The 17-foot male leaned over the fence, practically into the golf cart, looking for treats. Its long, green tongue reached eagerly for carrots. The female, smaller at 15 feet, was also eager to greet visitors — both were velvet-soft to the touch and unafraid. The baby — whom Johnson's wife, Maria, named Chrystal — shied away. She was still nursing, and she worked her way to her mother to drink, all seven and a half feet of her.
Larry Johnson breeds animals on his 50 acres, for ranches and zoos, especially Mhorr's gazelle, a species that's been extinct in the wild since 1973: He has 31 of them out of an estimated 250 left in the world. They aren't offered for sport hunting.
An avuncular sort with white hair, Johnson was very matter-of-fact about the animals, not even pausing as he pointed out that a mountain gazelle the visitors were driving by on a muddy hill was giving birth.
"If it weren't for captive breeding, these animals would be extinct today," he said.
While Johnson feels a responsibility to the animals, "I don't confer human rights on them."
"Hunting," he said, "is a management tool. The issue is conservation." He leads an Exotic Wildlife Association effort to return the scimitar-horned oryx to Senegal.
Among the few ranchers who say they'll go along with the new federal rules is Reid, of the Morani River Ranch.
He wants to keep his endangered African antelope.
"We're not giving up on these species," Reid said, sitting in the dining room of his spread. Outside, seen through a picture window overlooking a small lake, some exotic deer, water buffalo and kangaroo wandered by.
"We're not going to get rid of them," he said. "We're continuing our plan to manage the herd and shoot the old males past breeding age. That's what we hunt."
Other ranchers — some of them panicked at new federal intervention — have sold and even given him their endangered African antelope.
While he accepts the permitting for now, Reid wants to abolish it.
"This is the first battle in a long-time war that we can't afford to lose," said Reid, who predicts that animal groups that oppose hunting will try to limit other species. He said he had a "passion" for the African antelope, and he has a stuffed scimitar-horned oryx in the ranch's main lodge.
Asked how he felt about killing the animal, he said, "I feel great. He was a challenge. He was past breeding age and provided food for the family. There is no meat on the planet that is better than African antelope."
Reid said half of his $600,000 annual overhead went to feed.
"Who is going to fund the survival of these species?" he asked. "Hunters are the greatest conservationists in America."
Outside, after hours in the Jeep and desperate for his visitors to get a photo, Amlong directed his wife to drive to an enclosure where there were a pair, male and female, of the elusive scimitar-horned oryx. New to the ranch, they'll be fed and acclimated before being released into a pasture with the others.
It isn't so easy to track the animals for hunting — "like shooting fish in a barrel," Amlong cracked, making a dig at the animal rights groups opposed to the hunts.
Amlong likes to joke about one species, the Pere David's deer, a majestic animal with massive, furry antlers, which is extinct. "See it?" he said. "You can't, it's extinct."
Once prized by the Chinese emperor and kept in the imperial gardens, the deer were wiped out in China, but they survived abroad.
Now they can be hunted in Texas, for a $9,000 trophy hunt fee.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2012