For successful integration of biological conservation into economic markets, economic processes need to capture ecological values. South African wildlife ranching is a tourist-based activity that generates unique information on the economic value of wildlife species. We used public data from South African wildlife auctions to evaluate if annual prices 1991–2012 related to species characteristics associated with scarcity, aesthetics and ecology of South African carnivores and ungulates. While none of the species characteristics influenced carnivore prices, ungulate prices were related to characteristics associated with novelty and aesthetics, which relative importance had increased over time. We raise both ecological and economic concerns for this apparent focus. Our results also suggest a potential importance of non-species-related factors, such as market and buyer characteristics. We encourage further evaluation of the relative influences of species characteristics versus factors that are intrinsically linked to economic processes on price variations in South African wildlife.