OUDTSHOORN, South Africa—The ostrich chariot lies in the shade of a pepper tree here on the century-old Highgate Farm. In 1986, fourth-generation ostrich rancher Alex Hooper built the device for the opening ceremony of the South African Games, when the country was still banned from the Olympics. He strapped two female birds side by side in the front and then had two horny males chasing behind them to yank the rickety contraption across the dusty Karoo plains at speeds up to 30 kilometers per hour. Like most things in the ostrich business, it never quite lived up to its potential. The birds weren't bright enough to follow directions, and Hooper was no Ben-Hur. "He found out it was quite difficult to get the birds to work together," my guide Adam Swarts tells me with characteristic understatement. "Today, it just sits here as a souvenir of the farm."
Situated just over the lush coastal mountains of the Western Cape in a semi-desert plucked of all but the hardiest vegetation, the town of Oudtshoorn ranks as the ostrich capital of the world. Four hundred and fifty ostrich ranchers live within its borders, and their marvelous flocks fill the landscape amid industry billboards that command visitors to "Switch to ostrich: lean, healthy, red meat." It turns out these birds may be healthy for the environment, too, as a sustainable source of animal protein. Carnivores have been blamed for global warming, deforestation, water pollution, and water overuse. Could farming ostriches and other game animals be the solution?
I've come to southern Africa to learn about the challenges of preservation in our collective homeland, a continent where after 2 million years of evolution, man and beast have still not fully accepted their co-dependence. In Kenya, once a bastion for wildlife, biologists estimate that 60 percent to 70 percent of the country's large mammals have died out in the last 30 years—their rangeland replaced by livestock and agriculture. Now, many African countries are facing a "bushmeat crisis," as the forests are stripped of animals for sale in illegal markets. But South Africa seems to be on its way toward sustainability. Despite its rapidly growing population of 44 million people—about 5 percent of the continent's total—native wildlife has been rebounding inside and out of the country's national parks.
In 1997, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization first endorsed wildlife ranching as a way forward for both wildlife and people. Since game animals require less water than cattle and can thrive in habitats other than pasture or cleared forests, conservation groups have encouraged landowners and communities throughout southern Africa to manage their wildlife resources for a steady supply of meat. As a result, we've seen the growth of an alternate agricultural universe, where magazine ads offer "wildlife translocation" services; ranchers crowd into game auctions to bid on oryx, kudu, impala, and spotted hyena; and country pubs are filled with broad-chested men in khaki shorts and canvas shirts who smell sweetly of antelope urine. Today, conservationists estimate that nearly 2 million wild mammals are stocked on private ranches in South Africa, and ostrich farmers bring in about $54 million each year in whole-bird sales.
It's only in the last few years that ostrich meat has come to be seen as fit for civilized consumption. Although humans have hunted ostriches, emus, and ratites around the world for thousands of years—even wiping out New Zealand's moa in the 1500s—ostrich farming exploded in South Africa in the 1860s owing to European demand for feathers, not flesh. Ostrich-plumed hats and boas were all the rage in the early 20th century. But the feather market collapsed as two World Wars dampened enthusiasm for such fashionable accoutrements. (Some blame the rise of the automobile and highway gusts that blew off ladies' hats.) So the folks in Karoo figured out a way to tan and finish ostrich hides in the late 1960s and started selling them for use in cowboy boots and designer handbags. At that time, Klein Karoo—the "ostrich cartel" behind all those billboards—controlled 95 percent of the world market. The government has tried to maintain this monopoly by banning the export of live birds or eggs—but thousands of eggs were apparently smuggled to the United States and sold for as much as $1,000 each.
It's hard to believe it took a century of raising ostriches before the white folks figured out they tasted good, too. Klein Karoo built the first slaughterhouse in 1963—primarily for jerky on the local market—but the Hooper family claims its farm was the first to start serving ostrich steaks to visitors in the 1970s. The animals were a natural source of food: Ostrich brains are smaller than their eyeballs, while their meat—about 75 pounds in an adult—accounts for half of their body weight, a higher percentage than cattle or chicken. (Like other game, it's packed with more protein and less fat that beef.) The birds rarely drink water, and they are ready to "render" after just one year—about half the time needed for a typical cow. (Since ostriches are runners, not flappers, all of their meat is concentrated in their whopping drumsticks.)
My guide, a tiny fellow who is no match for the 6-foot birds around which he spends his days, picks up a thorn branch and takes me into a barren pen where a breeding female squats under an A-frame shelter. I worry for him. Ostriches have a powerful kick and can be quite territorial, but he tells me they have a serious phobia when it comes to thorns and will either run away or shut their eyes. The bird hops up and trots away, and Swarts proudly reveals her football-sized egg. "You can feed 18 people with that," he says. "Go ahead, stand on it. It won't break."
From this strange perch atop the egg, I look out at the fenced-in fields of ostriches stretching across 3,000 acres. Because the farm's 10,000 birds are raised on traditional feedstock and the rangeland is largely cleared of the Karoo's native scrub, the dusty farm isn't quite the ecological nirvana I was hoping for. Not every game ranch is the same, and no doubt parts of Highgate may be in better shape than the well-trodden path I've followed today, but it's obvious that the land here is in no better shape than that of a cattle ranch. At this point, Klein Karoo is far more concerned with the meat's health benefits than its environmental imprimatur.
Still, the ostrich business appears to be a prime example of making native wildlife pay for itself. But for game ranching to be competitive, it needs to have as many uses as possible. Foreign tourists like me turn out to be part of that sustainability equation. Apparently, we like to visit these farms to gawk at the ridiculous birds and buy souvenirs. Even the adorable chicks that die prematurely are stuffed, mounted in broken eggshells, and hawked in the gift shop. Or how about a genuine ostrich-egg-shell bra? One size fits all. Not every ostrich farm is open to visitors, but tourism dollars are an added bonus that you'd be hard-pressed to achieve on a cattle ranch.
Before I leave the farm, Swarts takes me over to the corral where three guys are hanging out in a bandstand with big numbers printed on their shirts. The jockeys grab their birds, like they must have done a dozen times today, and start charging down the track.