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Greatest Wildlife Spectacle on Earth, Karoo, Eastern Cape, South Africa.
The herds of wildebeest (gnu) and zebra that migrate across the Mara River in Tanzania are a spectacle that enjoys international renown. I have had the privilege of seeing, in Botswana in the early 70’s, as many as 100000 wildbeest and zebra in groups of between 500 and 1000 individuals migrating southwest across the Makgadigadi from Nxai Pan to the Central Kalahari National Park in the space of an afternoon. The clouds of dust could be seen for miles -- an awe-inspiring sight.
Few are however aware of the greatest of them all – the migration of springbok and other animals that took place across the plains of the Karoo, the Kalahari and the Springbok Flats until the early part of the 20th century. Herds of springbok up to 160-km long and 27-km wide, consisting of an estimated 100 million individuals, laid waste to everything in their path. Driven by instinct, they passed through villages and gardens, paying scant attention to the human inhabitants. As is the case with the lemmings of Northern Europe, the reason for these mass migrations is not well understood. It may be that they were driven by drought, population pressures or the need to seek fresh grazing resulting from intermittent rainfall in the region.
Europeans who encountered these huge herds of “trekbokken” shot as though the source was endless. There are instances of as many as 20000 being cornered and shot simply for the sport of it. Such activities, together with farming practises including fencing and introducing domestic animals such as sheep and goats caused the population to collapse.
Being selective grazers, the introduction of sheep led to a gradual decrease in the quality of the grazing. As a result, many of the farms are no longer economically viable. This has led many farmers to revert to game farming. Miraculously, the veld seems to respond quite quickly. Where game farming is widespread, it is now common practise to drop fences between farms to allow the wildlife to migrate freely.
In other words, it has taken almost 100 years for Europeans to appreciate what must have been obvious from the beginning. The temptation to interfere and tamper with natural systems that have existed for millions of years but are poorly understood seems irresistible and the result is almost always disastrous. Fortunately many are now conscious of these facts and are attempting to remedy the damage. Huge areas of the country, in places like the Kagalagadi Transfrontier Park, the Waterberg, the Eastern Cape and others are being returned to conservation.
So when next you drive through the barren and apparently lifeless Karoo and Kalahari, realise that it was not always so. This used to be, and will hopefully again become home to the greatest wildlife spectacle on earth. “Stand unshod upon it, for this ground is holy.”
Alan McIver ASGreatest
PS if you would like to read an excellent account of one such migration, read an article entitled "A Springbok Migration in the 19th Century" extracted from Lawrence Green's book "Karoo" which is published here.
1619/1%Last update: 2014-05-14 14:17
Author: Alan McIver
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