HLUHLUWE-UMFOLOZI PARK, South Africa - This year, a hippo attacked a 22-year-old man near the tiny village of Khula in the lush coastal wetlands of KwaZulu-Natal province, leaving him paralyzed.
Fearing for their community's safety, village leaders decided that enough was enough. It was time for the ornery family of nine hippos to go.
At one time, residents would have reached for a gun to solve the problem. Instead, Khula's leaders did what more and more South African landowners do with unwanted game - put them up for auction.
The family of snorting hippos went under the gavel recently at Africa's largest wild animal market, here in a game park 150 miles north of Durban.
For South Africa's booming wildlife industry, the auction - one of dozens held each year - is something like the NBA draft of the wildlife business. The buyers are eccentric millionaires, game reserve owners, park managers and, this year, a big-game hunter from Texas.
They arrived in their gleaming 4-by-4s and safari suits, ready to slap down thousands of dollars for a winning roster of animals that they hope will draw tourists and trophy hunters to their safari lodges.
Held under a big-top tent littered with animal droppings, the auction offered buyers their choice of 2,600 white rhinos, giraffes, zebras, ostriches, warthogs and a zoo's worth of other hoofed mammals.
"This is the opportunity of a lifetime!" announced auctioneer Willie Roux, his voice bellowing from loudspeakers as he introduced the sale of five of the hippos. "One male, four female, according to our estimation."
Images of the bulky hippos lounging in a nearby holding pen flashed onto a bank of television screens above Roux, who started the bidding at $2,000 apiece.
Within two minutes the price had shot up to $4,100.
Going once. Going twice.
"All done. All done. SOLD to number 45!" Roux called out.
Number 45 belonged to brothers Wayne and David Stainforth, owners of a 3,700-acre private game reserve where they had recently built a lake but could not find any hippos to inhabit it.
"I've been calling everywhere for hippos for the last 12 months," said 32-year-old Wayne Stainforth.
His fortunes changed when he outbid his competitors, setting a record in the annals of South African hippo sales. Previously, the highest bid for a single hippo was $2,700.
"We hoped to pay $3,500," said David. But paying extra was worth it, they agreed. "They have a nice story behind them," Wayne said.
In a tent dominated by middle-aged men sporting beer bellies, wide-brimmed hats, shorts and knee-high socks, the brothers stood apart. Wearing sunglasses and baseball caps, they walked through the auction with a pair of monkeys in tow. They made owning antelopes, giraffes and now five hippos somehow appear hip - the way being an Internet entrepreneur once was.
There's no question that wildlife is big business in South Africa. The business' growth has been spectacular, outpacing almost all other sectors of the economy and pulling in more than $100 million in sales a year. Last week's auction generated $1 million, which goes to the auction's sponsor, the KwaZulu-Natal parks board.
Twenty years ago, South Africa had a few hundred private game reserves and game farms. Today there are more than 9,000, covering an area larger than Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware combined.
The growth of South Africa's private game land is proof, for many wildlife experts, of the country's success in animal conservation. Once threatened by poachers and hunting, South Africa's wildlife has never been stronger. More animals live in the country today than ever before.
And there is still a growing demand for animals such as the rhino, rare antelopes and sable.
"To attract people to ranches and reserves, there has to be something more than the run-of-the-mill animal. You need to have a draw card," said L.D. Van Essen of the center for wildlife management at the University of Pretoria.
As a result, the prices for many animals have risen sharply in recent years. Seven years ago, a white rhino sold for $4,800. At last week's auction, the 23 rhinos for sale fetched as much as $32,000 apiece.
The game market is so good that many cattle ranchers, including Piet Mare and his son Lomon, are dropping their cattle herds in favor of breeding wildlife.
"It's not so intense like cattle farming, which puts a lot of stress on the land," said Lomon Mare, sizing up the holding pens of rhinos and antelopes before the auction. "It's still a growing market. More and more people are finding out that cattle aren't as profitable."
The Mares went to the auction looking to fill out their herd of nyala antelopes for their 4,000-acre ranch in Limpopo province. They walked away with 64 of the antelopes for $45,000.
Now in its 14th year, the auction started as a way for parks and reserves to sell their surplus wildlife.