Jacques Malan weaves his Toyota Land Cruiser through thorn trees in South Africa’s dusty bushveld, stops and points at an asset he says could be worth $5 million. It’s a buffalo calf named Manyara.

“This little guy has all the potential to become one of the biggest in the country,” the 52-year-old game farmer said as he pointed at the calf’s milky white horns. “The genetics are superb,” Malan said dressed in khaki shorts and a shirt with his name embossed on it.

Manyara is the half-brother of Horizon, South Africa’s biggest-horned disease-free buffalo bull, who earned his name from his 55-inch wide horns. Malan sold Horizon for a then-record $2.4 million in 2012 and he’s betting that Manyara, named after a Tanzanian lake, is worth even more.

Record prices, which have risen fivefold in six years, are a product of South Africa’s booming game ranching business in which the country’s wealthiest, including Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and luxury-goods billionaire Johann Rupert, compete to breed the biggest and rarest animals to generate revenue from hunting. Some critics say the price surge is a bubble.

BUILDING GENETICS AND A BUBBLE

Two hundred years ago African buffaloes regularly had horns spanning more than 60 inches, almost the length of two baseball bats, Malan said. Hunting has now eliminated the largest animals from the gene pool with a horn spread of 40 inches today considered big.

“We breed them to be able to breed back the top genetics,” Malan said in an interview at his farm called Lumarie, where he has bolstered his security by circling his house with a cage containing three lions. “We’re not here to create something that was never there before, we’re trying to replace.”

Horn size is king in an industry underpinned by hunters from the U.S. and Europe who are demanding – and paying for – ever larger and more diverse trophies. A prime western Zambian sable, a black-and-white antelope known for its grooved, arching horns, can cost 5 million rand, while a white kudu bull is worth 1 million rand. Some of the color variants, such as coffee springbok golden wildebeest, are from recessive genes and occur only rarely in the wild.

The buffalo trade and genetic enhancement are booming in South Africa because of its unique game-ownership laws, according to Peter Oberem, president of Wildlife Ranching South Africa. South Africa and Namibia are the only countries in Africa that grant individuals full property rights to wild animals.

“The buffalo in this country are privately owned, therefore people wish to manage those assets in a way to preserve them and also to maintain or improve their value,” Oberem said. “In the rest of Africa that’s not the case.”

The prices of the buffaloes are being inflated by wealthy breeders trading between each other and aren’t underpinned by wider demand for hunting, according to Chris Niehaus, a former chief executive officer of the South African Hunters and Game Conservation Association.

“In my opinion it’s a bubble. I understand financial markets and I can see a bubble when one raises its head,” Niehaus, who is also a former CEO of HSBC’s South Africa unit, said by phone. “These people who are playing a financial shell game between each other are putting one of the greatest conservation success stories in the world at risk.”

South Africa’s population of large mammals has ballooned to about 24 million the most since the 19th century, and up from 575,000 in the early 1960s, according to Wouter van Hoven, an emeritus professor at the University of Pretoria. The primary reason is due to the country’s ownership laws, enshrined in the Game Theft Act of 1991, that allow people to own, invest, breed and hunt, according to WRSA’s Oberem.

“Private ranchers are very much responsible for the fact that the growing numbers of these rare species are in South Africa,” said Norman Adami, the former chairman of SABMiller’s South African unit, in an interview. “The numbers are dwindling in the rest of Africa.”

BUILDING GENETICS AND A BUBBLE

Malan says that’s unfair to describe game farming as a bubble because it isn’t driven by debt-fueled investments like U.S. real estate. While the price of assets such as property move up and down with the health of the economy breeding offers financial exits, he said.

“You pay a million rand for a cow and the prices drop 50 percent, how do you recover your money? You breed it out,” he said. “Instead of taking you one year to get your money back, it might take you three years.”

Buffalo breeding is part science, part experience, says Malan. In females farmers look for characteristics such as good horn length, enough milk and regular calving intervals, while for males indications include horn size, body mass and shape. That know-how is complemented with DNA testing to prevent inbreeding as well as identifying strong breeding lines.

“By breeding you can make 50 to 150 percent returns a year,” said Adami, who owns a game farm with 200 buffalo, 200 sable antelopes and 100 roan antelopes.

Diseases such as tuberculosis and foot-and-mouth, are among Malan’s greatest concerns, so new buffalo must be inspected by a vet before they are introduced to his property, while his staff regularly usher game into bomas, or animal enclosures, where they are dipped to kill ticks which can carry disease.

A major reason why Malan’s and other game farmers’ stock of animals is so valuable is because they are mostly healthy. Bovine tuberculosis is widespread among buffaloes in the Kruger National Park and other public reserves. Soon after leaving the highway to re-enter his farm, Malan spots a herd of 22 buffaloes who share about 198 acres of his land. In the cluster worth around 80 million rand, he spots his next superstar and marvels at his 45-inch horns and huge body of the 4-year-old calf.

“What I like about him is not only his length but look at his body on the horn,” he said leaning from his window. “His horn mass is great. He hasn’t got a name yet. He’s got to prove himself here before he gets the opportunity of breeding.”