This article is featured in the Fall 2020 issue of Texas LAND magazine. Click here to find out more.
Through his San Antonio-based company Wildlife Partners LLC, Brian Gilroy is in the business of non-native wildlife conservation.
“Wildlife Partners is an innovative wildlife conservation company,” said Gilroy, who lives in San Antonio and owns ranches in Kerr, Goliad and Frio counties. “Our business model marries the desire to do good for the world with economic incentives.”
Beginning in 2016, Gilroy, who spent two decades in oil and gas financial services prior to opening Wildlife Partners, started offering access to more than 50 species of non-native or exotic wildlife. The species range from addax and axis deer to warthogs, waterbuck and white bearded wildebeest.
“I’ve long been a student of taxation and through personal experience came to understand the tax-related issues of the ranching industry,” Gilroy said. “That, combined with my experience in structuring deals and raising money for alternative investment, allowed me to approach the exotic wildlife industry in a way that it hadn’t been previously.”
Under the umbrella of Wildlife Partners, landowners can purchase non-native wildlife for their ranches and non-landowners can invest in non-native wildlife and house it on one of the Wildlife Partners’ properties. In both cases, the investments are 100 percent tax-deductible in the first year. To date, Wildlife Partners has generated about $50 million in sales, $30 million of which is from non-landowners utilizing land owned by Wildlife Partners.
“After careful analysis, we were able to take what had been historically a ‘fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants business’ and solve the problems of the marketplace and commerce chain while removing a lot of the risk,” Gilroy said. “Our model makes owning exotic wildlife a lot more fun and a lot more lucrative for everyone involved.”
In addition to investment opportunities, Wildlife Partners offers trap-and-transport services as well as ranch consulting and construction services. Wildlife Partners also employs a full-time veterinarian from Africa who specializes in exotic wildlife.
In recent months, the company has developed an investment package that is available through select brokers specializing in alternative investments. Since its inception, in the midst of emerging COVID-19, the firm has raised several million dollars.
“Day after day, we’re proving that effective wildlife conservation doesn’t have to be centered around donation-funded altruism,” said Gilroy, noting that Wildlife Partners is working with 400 private landowners in Texas and more than 50 conservation-minded investors throughout the U.S. “When doing the right thing for the planet is further enhanced by for-profit motives, people who might not otherwise participate in conservation join the fight to save species from extinction.”
History of Exotic Wildlife in Texas
Throughout history, owning non-native wildlife has signified status and power because it’s a rare and limited opportunity. About 3,500 years ago, kings and other rulers often created menageries of exotic animals to showcase their wealth and dominance.
“While circumstances have changed, human nature hasn’t,” Gilroy said. “In 2020, people with wealth and influence enjoy owning and conserving exotic wildlife. It’s a tangible symbol of their success, their commitment—and it’s just cool to be able to show family and friends beautiful, rare wildlife at home on their ranches.”
Texas landowners began stocking their ranches with exotic wildlife in the 1960s. The majority of the animals came from zoos that bred the animals to perpetuate the species and found themselves with excess offspring and no room to house the surplus.
“There were no clear channels of commerce nor a lot of guidance on how to manage the wildlife,” Gilroy said. “Despite that, the people who could afford it would just keep investing in exotic wildlife, much in the same way that some people keep putting money into wildcatting ventures or gambling trips to Las Vegas.”
With the wide diversity of ecosystems between its borders, Texas can provide suitable habitat for animals from around the world.
“The combination of our climate and vast holdings of private land where the animals can graze and reproduce make Texas a good destination for exotic wildlife,” Gilroy said. “Our state laws related to non-native wildlife are favorable; the animals are designated as livestock, which means they can be owned by private individuals just like cows or horses instead of being owned by the public as is the case with native wildlife.”
As Gilroy began researching the exotic industry in Texas, he discovered two widely held misconceptions. First, most people, including lifelong Texans and hunters, wrongly believed that non-native wildlife in Texas existed here primarily as trophies for canned hunts.
“Canned hunting operations represent a tiny sliver of the exotic wildlife industry in Texas,” Gilroy said. “Most people buy, own and manage exotic wildlife because they love the majesty of the species and enjoy having them be part of their ranching experience.”
Second, most people misunderstand the source of exotic wildlife. It, as explained earlier, consists primarily of excess animals from zoos, not direct importation from foreign countries. Importing wildlife from abroad is banned for several reasons including the transmission of diseases such as hoof-and-mouth disease.
“The last major importation of foreign animals into the United States occurred in the 1990s when a small group was brought in from Africa,” Gilroy said.
For most species, fewer than 30 individuals formed the original seedstock that was brought to America to populate its zoos. Inbreeding has precipitated genetic challenges for some species.
“The limited numbers also mean that there is a limited supply of any given species available at any given time,” Gilroy said. “As zoos’ populations expand, they still only contribute a few thousand new animals, covering more than 100 species, each year.”
Using greater kudu as an example, he noted that originally 30 head were imported into the United States. Today the American population numbers about 3,000. According to the African Wildlife Foundation, there are only 118,000 greater kudu remaining in the African wild.
From Personal to Business
After spending 20 years in the oil and gas financial services industry running his own investment firm, Gilroy was ready for a change of pace.
“In 2012, I began buying exotic wildlife for myself,” Gilroy said. “I saw the potential tax benefits and soon bought a ranch.”
Soon after, he “quit going to work and started spending every day at the ranch.”
“I jumped in with both feet and began amassing industry data and exotic wildlife,” Gilroy said. “From the beginning, I approached exotic wildlife as a business and not a hobby. On my ranch, I soon realized the gains from the power of appreciation in the wildlife’s value and the
When he got into the industry, it was a common practice for landowners who were selling their properties to include their herds of exotics with the ranches they sold without additional charge. Realizing that exotic wildlife were assets just like cattle, Gilroy began to create and claim the value of those assets.
In 2014, he ran an ad in a ranch real estate magazine featuring a bongo antelope. The headline read: “Free Livestock.” The verbiage challenged: “You’d never leave cattle behind, why would you leave millions of dollars’ worth of exotics behind?”
He educated his first target audience, landowners who were selling their properties. He taught them they could liquidate animals, but leave just enough to add appeal. He also expanded his inventory of wildlife as others liquidated their herds.
After three years of enjoying financial success and personal satisfaction, Gilroy began working to build a business beyond his own fence lines.
“In 2016, I began the task of scaling Wildlife Partners, so it could be sustainable and possibly have a dramatic impact on the exotic wildlife business,” Gilroy said.
As a rancher himself, he came to understand his initial customer base. They were people who had succeeded in their chosen careers, amassing disposable income that they invested in recreational ranches that they shared with family, friends and business associates.
Many were hunters. All enjoyed wildlife and the satisfaction of conservation.
“While these people are very successful, ranching is very expensive,” Gilroy said. “Everyone needs—or at least wants—the land to generate revenue to help pay for itself.”
Knowing that many people were already interested in exotic wildlife, Gilroy began considering how to structure a deal that encouraged participants to invest $500,000 in an exotic wildlife purchase instead of $15,000 in a one-off purchase.
Gilroy developed two offerings: one for people who own land and a second for people who don’t. The landowner package allows landowners to choose the exotic hoofstock they want from the Wildlife Partners’ inventory. The purchase comes with free consulting services, access to expert veterinary advice and all of the equipment and expertise necessary for capture and relocation of animals.
The non-landowner package allows investors to purchase and own exotic wildlife that is housed on one of Gilroy’s ranches. The owners lease Gilroy’s property. Gilroy and his staff care for the animals and market their progeny. The owners and their guests can see the wildlife whenever they choose and play a role in the management.
Each investment opportunity is offered in a $5 million block and averages
“For the landowners, Wildlife Partners makes it easier to own and manage exotic wildlife with less risk,” Gilroy said. “For the non-landowners, we’ve given them access to land and exotic wildlife without responsibility and with reduced risk, so they enjoy all of the benefits with none of the work or worry.”
His approach resonated. In 2016, Gilroy ran his first “experimental” offering. Wildlife Partners raised its first $5 million in just a few weeks.
How (and Why) it Works
Both investment packages capture the tax advantage that exists because exotic wildlife are classified as livestock in Section 179 of the Federal Tax Code. As such, they are tax deductible as business equipment.
On the depreciation schedule, breeding livestock, which includes breeding exotic wildlife, can be completely written off after the first year. Unlike other equipment such as farm trucks, the value of exotic wildlife is not reduced, so it maintains its full value without accruing tax.
All of the labor, feed, equipment and other inputs necessary for the wildlife’s care is also considered a business expense and is tax deductible. By using a ranch to raise exotic wildlife, the operation becomes a tax-deductible revenue generator instead of a recreational property that is not allowed any deductions.
When the progeny are sold, the income produced from those sales is taxed at 15 percent as a long-term capital gain, which is another substantial benefit.
In application, according to Gilroy, the process works like this:
“If I own a ranch in Texas and own greater kudu for instance, all of the expenses I accrue in taking care of my kudu—feed, labor, equipment,
health care, etc.—is tax deductible. When I sell the offspring, I get
If a non-landowning investor places $500,000 with Wildlife Partners, it essentially works the same way.
“When investors entrust us with $500,000, they get a mix of exotic wildlife valued at about $320,000. The remaining $180,000 is a service fee paid to Wildlife Partners for feed, labor, equipment, medical care, land lease, etc. When the offspring is sold, the investor gets the proceeds from the sale.”
Landowners within the Wildlife Partner network don’t have to worry about divesting their exotic wildlife if they ever decide to sell their ranch or get out of the exotic wildlife business. Wildlife Partners will purchase the wildlife.
And if the landowners don’t have the manpower or expertise to capture and transport the animals Wildlife Partners will handle it for them.
“We will purchase the animal for 70 percent of its retail value. Our margin is an average of about 30 percent,” Gilroy said. “If, in the rare instance, something happens to the animal during the capture or transport and it is injured or dies, Wildlife Partners will pay for it.”
When it comes to the exotic wildlife industry, the forces of supply and demand are apparent.
“The exotic wildlife population can’t increase faster than its rate of reproduction,” Gilroy said.
Supplies are limited. For instance, there are about 3,000 sable antelope in the U.S. with each sex representing roughly half of the population.
“In any given month, there are only 20–30 Sable females being sold with countless investors vying to acquire them,” Gilroy said. “Those who own, manage and conserve exotic wildlife are reluctant to sell them, so the supply is self-limiting.
He continued, “Plus, the majority of use is non-consumptive. In fact, Mother Nature, through natural death loss, is the only consumer.”
In many cases, the bidding for the limited supply of any given species becomes competitive as customers who are used to getting their way in the marketplace go head-to-head with one another in an effort to add to their personal herds.
Between 2014 and 2020, Gilroy has seen prices climb. For instance, six years ago a sable antelope female cost $9,000, and today a sable antelope female costs $27,000. A dama gazelle female was valued at $3,500 then and $13,000 now. A bongo antelope female was $20,000 in 2014 and $45,000 today. In 2014, a female giraffe cost $50,000–$60,000, and today a female giraffe is valued at about $190,000.
And demand continues to escalate.
“By approaching the exotic wildlife industry as a business, I came to fully understand the powerful combination of the tax incentives, the appreciation rate and revenue generating capacity,” Gilroy said. “When it’s done correctly, it is almost impossible to lose money, which is a powerful financial incentive.”
He continued, “On top of the economic opportunity, the model offers a chance for people to become active conservationists who are contributing to the survival of rare species and doing something completely unique and good for the planet. It’s worth bragging about.
“By any definition, it’s a win.”