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."