Hunting Nilgai Boosts South Texas Economy

Antelope prized for meat contributes to service industries and conservation.

By ROBERT KROGER and DAVID SCHLAKE

The nilgai antelope, often referred to as the “blue bull,” is an iconic species found on expansive private ranches and public scrublands across South Texas. Native to the Indian subcontinent — specifically India and Pakistan — these robust antelope came to Texas in the 1920s via human introduction and have since flourished in the semi-arid regions of the state, creating a unique hunting economy that attracts enthusiasts from far and wide.

Scientifically known as Boselaphus tragocamelus, the nilgai is not only the largest Asian antelope species but also one of the most striking game animals in the world. Donning predominantly bluish-gray coats and white markings, these herbivores offer hunters a lean, rich meat, but also an exotic hunting experience unlike any other — particularly here in the United States. But what makes nilgai hunting in Texas so beneficial to its communities?

We traveled to Kingsville, where we learned about the hunting culture surrounding the nilgai and the economic benefits enjoyed by countless industry professionals throughout the region.

According to Josh Hartwick, a local wildlife biologist and ranch manager we interviewed, nilgai antelope have cemented themselves as a mainstay in the South Texas ecosystem with a growing estimated population of over 50,000, which is particularly enticing when considering the restrictions prohibiting hunters from harvesting them on their native soil.

According to Hartwick, the species was originally brought over as a potential beef supplement.

“The nilgai antelope have an incredibly high-quality meat,” Hartwick said. “It’s very lean; however, it’s very savory in flavor and it does not have a wild-game taste. They were going to attempt to domesticate these animals and use them as a beef replacement. In the 1920s, they brought these species in, turned them out wild on the ranch — they didn’t have the concept of wildlife management back then — so they had no idea the animals were going to breed and proliferate and end up how we have them now.”

Despite early concerns about their impact on local ecosystems, there is little to no data supporting the notion that nilgai have disrupted native species. The Natural Science Research Laboratory at Texas State University supports this assessment. For food, nilgai primarily forage through a variety of vegetation, including shrubs, grasses and cultivated crops, while simultaneously coexisting within the ecological framework without creating any sort of noticeable imbalance. Effective wildlife management practices have helped ensure their numbers remain in check, preventing overpopulation and subsequent ecological challenges.

The allure of nilgai hunting in Texas has led to significant economic growth across the southern region, as hunting outfitters, ranches and guides have tailored specialized packages to offer zealous outdoorsmen the trip of a lifetime. Because of the scarcity of nilgai hunting opportunities around the world, these businesses have a global reach throughout the legal hunting season, which spans from late fall to early spring.

But the economic benefits don’t end at the gates of some private ranch. Hunting expeditions encompass a vast range of services, including transportation, lodging, hospitality, retail, food and more leading to more dollars in the community. Moreover, the sale of hunting licenses and permits, as well as associated fees and taxes, contributes to statewide conservation efforts and habitat preservation.

From a sustainability perspective, Texas nilgai have few, if any, natural predators. With a habitat similar to their native India and Pakistan, these giant antelope are thriving as a sustainable consumptive resource in South Texas as both a food and trophy animal. Nilgai live on average for about 10 years, provided they can avoid falling prey to coyotes as calves or to unnaturally cold weather (such as deep freezes) as adults. With relatively few factors contributing to a decreasing population and estimates at 30,000 to 50,000 animals living in the state, according to Wildlife Partners LLC, nilgai are not only here to stay but may become a bigger focal point in the rich hunting history of the Texas Hill Country.

Inherent with sustainable population growth comes interactions with ranchers and cattle. Nilgai do not jump fences but have been known to destroy fencing, making them undesirable in some ranchers’ eyes. Mitigation measures of low fence crossings have helped bridge that tolerance gap, but hunting and the economics tied to nilgai are a significant bridge in tolerating their presence on the land.

It isn’t hard to understand how nilgai have become a cornerstone of the Texas hunting industry, as the exotic species offers hunters a challenging experience, generating significant amounts of meat and beautiful trophies while simultaneously providing economic value to the communities they live in as a whole. Accessible, sustainable Texas nilgai are arguably the next big thing in Texas hunting.

Robert Kroger and David Schlake are the executive director and editorial lead, respectively, for Blood Origins. Blood Origins is a U.S.-based nonprofit and a global conservation leader. View Original Article >

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