Bring back the springboks

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

Recent controversial suggestions by two Rhodes University researchers that ranching with springbok is economically and ecologically more sustainable than wool farming in the Karoo not only had farmers quickly listing several reasons why antelope would not soon replace sheep as the territory's main enterprise but also focused renewed attention on what, not too long ago, was one of the natural wonders of the world.

Until 120 years ago the Karoo was the scene of Africa's largest wildlife migrations when Die Trekbokken - or Grand Migration of Springbuck - periodically filled the veld as far as the eye could see. Herds numbering millions, if not hundreds of millions, crisscrossed and trampled the dry landscape in search of food. The age-old grazing pattern sounds destructive but, in fact, pruned and invigorated vegetation and fertilised and prepared the soil for the next rainy season.

Since then the great springbok herds have been thinned out to small, isolated and inbred pockets, making way for sheep, goats and cattle bred to produce under harsh conditions yet meet modern preferences for meat and animal fibre.

 Lawrence Green's graphic description of a springbok migration in the 19th century certainly captures the imagination: 'At first there was a faint drumming coming from an enormous cloud of dust and only the front rank of the springbok, running faster than galloping horses, could be seen. This front line was at least three miles long. Hares and jackals and other small animals were racing past the hill and taking no notice of the human beings. Snakes were out in the open, too, moving fast and seeking cover under the rocks on the hill.

"The first solid groups of buck swept past on both sides of the hill. After that the streams of springbok were continuous, making for the river and the open country beyond. Then the buck became more crowded. No longer was it possible for them to swerve aside when they reached the fires and the wagon. Some crashed into it and were jammed in the wheels, and trampled upon. The wagon became the centre of a mass of dead and dying buck."

At the height of the rush, the noise was overwhelming. Countless hooves powdered the surface to fine dust, it became hard to breathe. Within an hour the main body of springbok had passed, but that was not the end of the spectacle. Until long after sunset, hundreds upon hundreds of stragglers followed the great herd. Some were exhausted, some crippled, some bleeding.

"The trees were reduced to gaunt stumps and bare branches. Every donga leading into the river was filled with buck. It seemed that the first buck had paused on the brink, considering the prospects of leaping across. Before they could decide, the ruthless mass was upon them. Buck after buck was pushed into the donga, until the hollow was filled and the irresistible horde went on over the bodies. Small animals were lying dead everywhere - tortoises crushed almost to pulp, fragments of fur that had been hares. A tree, pointing in the direction of the advancing buck, had become a deadly spike on which two springbok were impaled."

Clearly, any pioneer farmers who got caught in the path of herds consisting of hundreds of thousands of stampeding springbok would not have agreed with what some futurists believe, namely that the trekbok phenomenon can be revived and turned into South Africa's biggest tourist attraction. Even a tiny herd of 30 of these graceful, leaping, prancing, antelope gliding across the plains of a Karoo farm compete well with any eco-tourism attraction on offer, anywhere.

This is one reason why the NamaKaroo Foundation - a conservation agency working for the Karoo's cultural and natural heritage - has considered ways to further the large-scale reintroduction of springbok where they could replace sheep as the natural grazer in the same way that cattle have made way for bison in parts of the US. Already, tracts of land of more than 20 000 hectares have been opened for springbok and their associated plains game companions such as wildebeest and zebra.

It is hoped that by working with farmers and communities, the trekbok phenomenon might one day return to the Karoo - on a much smaller scale, of course. But the fences - which eventually stopped the free movement of most game - will have to be removed so that large tracts of land can be sewn together to allow the quintessential Karoo ecological process of roaming springbok to function again.

Despite the interesting history of the trekbokke - the last event was witnessed in the Northern Cape in 1896 - the phenomenon is little known among those who live in the Karoo today. How many know, for example, that springbok invaded and ran right through the town of Beaufort West over a period of three days?

For springbok to return to the Karoo, this time as a major economic force, will depend on what the region will look like 30 to 50 years from now. Will the current strong demand for wool persist? How many farmer families will survive global warming, political change and economic realities? Will the towns and infrastructure continue to crumble or will the shale gas industry bring prosperity, even help to develop desert farming technology with brak water and desalination?

A rekindled debate could raise issues about ecosystems, grazing and hunting and the value of springbok to people and place much along the lines of the Buffalo Commons concept in the Great Plains in the US. The theory is that ecological damage caused by wrong farming methods can be reversed and a socio-economic disaster be averted by reintroducing the herds of bison which were nearly wiped out by hunters.

By 1894, when President Grover Cleveland banned the killing of buffalo, there were only a few hundred left of the original estimated 60 million when Europeans arrived. Thanks to ensuing conservation efforts and the realisation that bison meat is healthy and "natural", the herds are growing again - and replacing cattle on some ranches.

However, any swing to springbok in the Karoo will be slow - and dependent on consumers choosing venison above traditional Karoo lamb. It will require a major promotional and marketing effort to create a viable domestic demand for game meat. While converted consumers already know the culinary delights of roast leg of springbok or barbequed back-strap steak, most do not even know how to prepare it - and are not ready to pay a premium for a product that has a darkish appearance on the shelf.

New export markets would also have to be developed in countries that are less fussy about foot-and-mouth disease, outbreaks of which regularly stop game meat shipments to Europe, even when the springbok herds are 2 000km from quarantined regions.

For the moment, wool farmers regard switching to springbok as a pipe dream. While a few do well adding value to springbok meat as a niche product, breeding trophy rams for international clients, or even entertaining the growing band of local biltong hunters -200 000 of them at last count - most farmers have yet to be convinced they can do better with these antelope than they can with domestic livestock.

Neither do they believe that farming with springbok is ecologically less destructive than sheep, which are nowadays used to utilise veld in rotational systems specially designed to prevent the degradation caused by centuries of continuous grazing and overstocking. The difficulty with springbok, they point out, is that one cannot move them from camp to camp, as is done with sheep or cattle. This compounds the problem of sustainable veld management.

Other objections include that sheep have a much higher reproduction rate than game, grow faster, and produce meatier carcasses. Springbok are also extremely prone to predation.

Besides, large-scale harvesting (shooting) is difficult and depends on the topography of the farm, time of day and season. A field abattoir is required to maintain hygienic processing of the carcasses as well as keeping the cold chain intact.

Still, it is not impossible that springbok could one day be domesticated (at the risk of giving up its organic status) along the lines of the reindeer in New Zealand - a country that has no indigenous antelope yet exports more venison than South Africa does.

Written by: Roelof Bezuidenhout

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  • Roelof Bezuidenhout is a Karoo livestock farmer and freelance writer. This article was published on Cape Times.