Strange things are happening in Texas. You might almost say it's a zoo down there.
?In the mesquite thickets of the Hill Country in the central part of the state, a cowpoke rides out to feed the stock—not Santa Gertrudis or Hereford steers but beisa oryx, rapier-horned antelope fierce enough to kill lions and men in their native sub-Saharan Africa.
?Among the live oak groves nearby, a surly Texas longhorn looks menacingly at a dark sika deer from Japan as they contest a mouthful of alfalfa. European fallow deer, the bucks with wide palmated antlers, stand by nervously, hoping to snatch a bite for themselves.
?On a game plain as stark as any in South Africa, bristly-snouted white-tailed gnus gallop insanely by a flock of Armenian red sheep, while in the foreground an aoudad from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco bullies its way past a pair of hungry blue-legged ostriches to nip a handful of corn from the front seat of a battered ranch truck. Awaiting its turn, is a timid young Nile lechwe from the famine-stricken Sudan.
?In the dense cedar woods along the headwaters of the Nueces River, a gawky nilgai from India emerges from cover to head for a feeding station; beyond it come wild Rio Grande turkeys, European mouflon sheep, Indian blackbuck and American white-tailed deer. Nearby, a young African eland grazes. At the click of a camera shutter, the nilgai flees, muscles bulging huge beneath the gunmetal blue of its hide. The others follow their sentinel, and soon only wet, dark eyes peer from the shrubbery—American, Asian, African, European, all equally wild, equally hungry and now equally Texan.
What's going on here? Well, it's the Invasion of the Exotics—or "Texotics," as some Lone Star chauvinists would have it. They're the five dozen species of non-native animals, many of them threatened or endangered in their homelands, that now share a home on the range with the deer and the antelope. Since 1930, when the enormous King Ranch in South Texas began importing nilgai, 370 Texas ranches—most of them in the Hill Country—have added exotics to the mix of beef cattle, horses, sheep and goats that are the traditional mainstays of the state's herding economy. Today, as the cattle market buckles under the sledge blows of high feed prices and a national dietary shift away from red meat, game ranching can, for some ranchers, spell the difference between marginal success and a foreclosed mortgage.
"If we ran only domestic stock on our 50,000 acres," says Harvey Goff, wildlife manager of the 106-year-old YO Ranch 100 miles north of San Antonio, "we'd realize six or seven dollars an acre. With exotics added to our beef, horses, sheep and Angora goats, we earn 10 dollars."
At the YO and several other ranches where exotics are raised, hunters from all over the world come to shoot trophy specimens—usually aging males past their prime as breeding stock. They pay Texas-sized fees for the privilege, but it would cost much more to hunt these animals on their native grounds. An aoudad, for example, can cost anywhere from $500 to $1,500 on a Hill Country ranch; in East Africa, expect to shell out $20,000 to $30,000, with no guarantee of finding a shootable animal. Blackbuck, once common on the Indian plains during the Raj, are now threatened or gone throughout much of the subcontinent. In fact, the YO is sending excess breeders to Pakistan in hopes of regenerating the species in its homeland. At the YO, a good black-buck is tagged at $ 1,000 plus guide fees of $150 a day per person. Air fare alone to Islamabad from New York costs $1,135.
What's more, the hunt for these critters can be every bit as challenging as anything a nimrod might face on the dusty, hot plains near Meerut. Indeed, by squinting the eyes just a bit, it's easy to turn the Texas Hill Country into East Africa, India, Persia or even the arid sheep mountains of Central Asia. Certainly the animals themselves, after, in many cases, dozens of generations roaming free on the Texas hills, feel wildly at home there.
A 1984 census of exotics conducted by the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife showed 120,201 non-native game animals in the Lone Star State, representing 59 species. By contrast, the state's herd of native white-tailed deer numbers about 3.7 million—largest in the nation and by some estimates fully a fifth of all the whitetails in the world. But whitetails, like all native Texas game, can be hunted only during the two-month season decreed by the state. Exotics are considered private property—like livestock—and can be hunted at any time.