(Repeats story originally published on Friday)
By Susan Taylor and Rod Nickel
TORONTO, March 3 (Reuters) - As mineral and metal prices have rebounded from a slump, so have the fortunes of small miners, and some industry experts are predicting even better times, ahead of the industry's biggest conference for explorers and developers.
Brighter prospects will be in focus at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada's conference in Toronto, Sunday through Wednesday.
The world's top miners are increasingly investing in exploration companies early on, taking "toehold" minority stakes to boost their odds of success.
"Majors have gutted their own exploration departments," said Theophile Yameogo, mining and metals advisory leader at consultant EY Canada. "They don't want to do leap-of-faith drilling."
After three years of declines, the world's junior miners showed a 7.4 percent uptick in equity financing to $7.29 billion in 2016, according to Thomson Reuters data.
They raised another $1.25 billion in January and February, well above $466.6 million a year earlier.
Supply constraints and healthy demand have lifted prices for several base metals. Copper, for example, touched a 20-month high of $6,204 a tonne in February, while zinc jumped from below $1,600 a tonne to $2,860 over the last year.
Political and economic uncertainty has helped support gold prices.
"I believe the industry has seen its darkest days and is soon to be way up," said Richard Schodde, managing director of exploration adviser MinEx Consulting.
Goldcorp, the world's No. 3 gold miner, acquired stakes of 12.5 percent in Auryn Resources and 19.9 percent in Independence Gold in the past year.
Major Drilling, the second-biggest provider of drilling services to miners, told analysts on a recent conference call that customer inquiries were increasing alongside industry demand.
But even as the outlook improves for junior miners, Canada is losing its status as the preferred exploration destination, said the Mining Association of Canada, which points to regulatory delays, inadequate infrastructure and the recent elimination of tax incentives.
Australia took top prize as the world's best country for mining investment for the second consecutive year in 2016, based on policy and mineral potential, according to the Fraser Institute's annual survey of 2,700 miners. Canada dropped to second place, followed by the United States.
Australia's share of the global gold exploration budget grew by 4.3 percentage points, to 15.5 percent, from 2011 to 2016. Meanwhile, Canada's fell to 14.8 percent from 20.6 percent, data from S&P Global Market Intelligence's SNL Metals & Mining unit shows.
Both countries have lost market share to the rest of the world, and Canada is simply feeling the pain ahead of Australia, Schodde said.
"Canada was earlier to peak than Australia," he said. "So the gas tank is a little more empty in Canada." (Reporting by Susan Taylor in Toronto, Rod Nickel in Winnipeg and Nicole Mordant in Vancouver; Editing by Denny Thomas and Lisa Von Ahn)