Scott Ball / Rivard Report
GOLIAD – In a dense South Texas thicket of mesquite and grass, a small herd of wild antelope known as nyala is grazing serenely when an all-terrain vehicle comes to a stop on the dirt path.
A calf, born just hours before, wobbles to its feet among those sturdy animals with entrancing eyes that peer cautiously at the intrusion.
The scene on a recent autumn day is a long way from Brian Gilroy’s upscale workplace in a far North San Antonio office building. But Gilroy is at home on this 1,750-acre parcel of land – enough to step from the ATV, walk gingerly through the brush, and scoop the newborn into his arms.
A San Antonio native, Gilroy is CEO of WildLife Partners, a business he founded in 2016 with his brother, Chris, after a long career in the oil and gas industry and finance and investing. He set up his office in Shavano Park and now operates three ranches populated with 3,000 super-exotic animals – 70 species ranging from Nubian ibexes to Cape buffaloes – owned by five partnerships made up of 45 investors. Each partnership is a $5 million investment.
Gilroy brokers the exotic animals, buying and selling monthly about $1 million worth, mostly non-native hoofstock and birds. He has moved 8,000 animals in three years from zoos or Texas ranches needing to reduce their populations.
WildLife Partners has 300 regular customers – ranchers who buy the animals for the novelty of owning them and to earn tax breaks, Gilroy said. Ranchers also make money selling off surplus animals. It is the full-time job of a dozen WildLife Partners employees to carefully catch, transport, and release animals without harming them, a guarantee the company offers.
Wildlife as Business
Ever since zoos in the U.S. began producing surplus animals in the 1950s, a steady flow of non-native animals has arrived on Texas ranches. Today, there are more than 125 exotic species living on private land, Gilroy said, and more than 5,000 ranches with exotic wildlife populations in the hundreds of thousands.
These include the dama gazelle, addax, Arabian oryx, Père David’s deer, Grevy’s zebra, mountain bongo, and scimitar oryx.
In their native ranges, these animals exist in very low numbers. In some cases, they have been classified as extinct in the wild. It’s Texas landowners who have given them hope for survival, Gilroy said.
WildLife Partners got its start when Gilroy decided he’d rather be on the ranch than in an oilfield. He figured there was money to be made in exotics – without necessarily hunting them. As a hunter and landowner, Gilroy had Persian ibexes and enjoyed them as status symbols, as “yard art,” he said. “I liked having them and they were a good tax writeoff and my kids loved them.”
Eventually, he quit the oil business and invested millions of dollars of his own cash into the new venture. “I did run a hunting business initially, which I didn’t particularly like. I’m not an entertainer – that’s just not my thing,” he said. “But I am a promoter, I’m a salesman. So I made the decision that in order to generate revenue for my ranch, I would start trying to sell animals alive.”
He also knew there was an opportunity to take what currently existed in the industry as “a cowboy with a gun, a truck, and a trailer,” he said, to an innovative company that marries capitalism with conservation. Rather than seeking to profit from one sale at a time, Gilroy said he scaled the business by increasing the transaction size and minimizing the number of deliveries.
He built the business on an approach to safeguarding the animals that appeals to owners, buyers, and potential investors. In Texas, where the industry is largely unregulated and the climate mild, Gilroy said there are more exotic animals than any other state, with one estimate putting the total at 1.3 million and growing. In 2016, the Exotic Wildlife Association estimated the industry has a $3.3 billion annual economic impact in Texas.
WildLife Partners has been successful because it’s a new business model with wide appeal. “A large portion of our audience that buys from us are pro-hunting. We are pro-hunting. I’m a hunter,” Gilroy said. “But because our product is not creating a revenue through the sale of the hunt, but through the sale of a live animal, we’re a bit more appealing.”
Thus, the only type of firearm used routinely on WildLife Partners land, where herds of nyala and dozens of other species graze, breed, and otherwise live out their lives safe from predators, are dart-guns used to medicate sick or injured animals or subdue them for relocation.
“As a general rule, these animals are going to live out their lives in a very normal, ordinary manner,” Gilroy said, navigating the dirt roads of the ranch on a recent tour for the Rivard Report. “However, they’re staying at the Ritz-Carlton.”
Wide-open spaces on the ranch resemble an African savannah except for the 8-foot fences and gates separating various species and investor-owned herds. Several ranch hands drive the property daily to check on the animals and supply feed, and a veterinarian lives on site. A high-tech thermal drone also is used to keep track of the animals.
All across the scenic property, well-fed tanks supply water, troughs are filled with supplementary food pellets, and native trees and lean-to structures provide shelter from the cold and rain. As the animals sprint and lumber across the grassy landscape, Gilroy rattles off their inherent characteristics and personalities along with their status in the wild and value on the market.
Majestic and endangered, the animals are worth protecting, by any measure. Since exotic hoofstock can no longer be imported to the United States from Africa, where their numbers are dwindling, American zoos rely on captive breeding plans strictly managed by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan, which tracks the animals and prevents inbreeding.
Gilroy’s operation, however, is a natural breeding environment where the animals mate freely as they do in the wild, where only the strong survive through natural selection. As a result, “we have bigger, stronger animals than in zoos,” he said.
WildLife Partners has about $15 million worth of animals on its ranches. Demand and supply in the market determines the value and encourages conservation. A female blesbok sells for $7,000 and a springbok, $9,000. A female Grevy’s zebra is priced at $13,000 and the black wildebeest goes for $15,000. But a Kenyan mountain bongo sells for $45,000 – Gilroy owns 50 of the 600 living in Texas – and a female giraffe, which he houses at his Hill Country ranch, would cost you $200,000.
Captive male exotics are hunted as trophies in Texas, but at smaller percentages of the total population, Gilroy said. However, most females in exotic species, such as a female nyala, which is worth $16,000, never get hunted because of their value for breeding, Gilroy said. “They will have babies until they die.”
The trade in exotic animals is a wealthy rancher’s hobby, he said, one that’s also profitable. “Anybody you can think of in the city of San Antonio that is wealthy and elite, with a ranch, they have exotics. They’re not buying them for the purpose of hunting,” he said. “The reason that they buy them is they like looking at them.”
WildLife Partners not only supplies Texas landowners with the animals, it shows them how to secure tax breaks on their investment and generate cash flow.
“Most people that historically bought these animals are completely unaware of the tax benefits associated with it,” he said. “In addition to that, I created a marketplace where they can sell their surplus animals alive. They didn’t have to bring in a hunting outfit to hunt them.”
The company’s marketing brochures, filled with captivating wildlife photography and charts showing projected payouts, also explain how those who don’t even own a ranch can invest in wildlife and deduct 100 percent of the capital expenses in the first year the investment is made.
Those investors are owners of animals kept on Gilroy’s ranches, where they have access to their very own “safari experiences,” complete with guided animal-watching tours on the ranch, comfortable accommodations in a well-appointed ranch house, and catered meals.
“They bring their families and they are totally involved in wildlife conservation firsthand in a way that they can’t be involved anywhere else in the world,” he said.
Gilroy acknowledges some of the animals he sells may be hunted as they become private property of the owner. “There are animals that get hunted in Texas, that’s undeniable,” Gilroy said. But profits are bigger in conservation.
The largest exotic game hunting operation in the state is Ox Ranch, which makes $2 million to $4 million a year in hunting sales. By comparison, WildLife Partners has made $50 million in three years.
Many of the wild animals on Gilroy’s ranches are listed as critically endangered, such as the addax, or vulnerable, such as the Arabian oryx. Some no longer exist in the wild. An upcoming issue of National Geographic magazine will focus on WildLife Partners, Gilroy said.
“I realize that in some circles capitalism is a bad word, but if not for capitalism, these animals would not exist,” he said.
A former board member at the San Antonio Zoo, Gilroy has worked with local zoo officials on best practices when it comes to wildlife conservation. Tim Morrow, president and CEO of the San Antonio Zoo, said Gilroy has helped the zoo develop a vision for its wildlife programs.
“There are many species thriving in Texas on large ranches that are disappearing from their native habitats mostly due to human-wildlife conflict, poaching, and loss of habitat,” Morrow said. “In several cases, there are more of some species in Texas than remain in the wild. The climate, terrain, and regional expertise in animal management in and around the Hill Country and South Texas makes this part of the world a place where these species can survive and thrive.”
A Big Leap
WildLife Partners recently completed a lengthy review process that allows investors to buy-in via broker-dealers or investment firms, and not just through his sales team, which he said is a big leap forward for the company. “I don’t know anyone else in the industry today that has the knowledge of how to navigate that path,” Gilroy said. “It took us a quarter-million bucks to get that in place.”
Though it can be stressful at times building a business like his, Gilroy said, he isn’t shying away from doing what it takes to strengthen the company’s position. He didn’t take a salary for the first three years.
“We’re a startup, and as a startup, we are infrastructure-heavy,” he said, describing the investment in three ranches, 20 trucks, 20 trailers, a helicopter, advertising, and employees like recent hire Joe Gullion, former president of Boeing Airplane Services and now president and chief operating officer at WildLife Partners.
“In order to build this thing, we’ve reinvested everything we make back in. We’re not pulling cash out, we’re building,” he said. The company made an equity offer earlier this year and sold 15 percent of the company for $10 million, which has fueled its growth. And Gilroy said WildLife Partners is in the midst of another equity raise.
“It’s a celebrity that’s buying a big chunk of our company,” Gilroy said. “I can’t say who it is until it’s done, but it’ll have a huge impact on our company.”
He has other irons in the fire as well at the firm’s offices on North Loop 1604 – two tech companies, one working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on tracing animal diseases and the other using computer chips to trace and identify quarter horses.
Gilroy said that while WildLife Partners recognizes the animals are “fixed assets on a balance sheet for the purpose of reporting to investors and the IRS, the staff loves the animals.”
That notion was clear on the day Gilroy stood in a clearing cradling a wide-eyed newborn nyala. Then, after confirming its gender and reporting it to the ranch manager, he gently placed the future bull at a spot in the grass where his mother would return to care for him.