South Africa's greatest migration

"When I pay for a view, I expect something more interesting than that" snapped the cantankerous hotel guest, unhappy with the view from her hotel room in the BBC's comedy Fawlty Towers. Basil, the hotel manager, gesticulated towards the window "well that is Torquay madam". She haughtily responded "Well it's not good enough". "May I ask what you were expecting to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House perhaps, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically...." Basil retorts. Of all the natural wonders of the world to choose from, the most magnificent and ridiculous Basil could think of were migrating wildebeest. The East African wildebeest migration is one of nature's most spectacular events and perhaps the most widely covered by television documentaries. What's less well-known is that, as recently as 120 years ago, South Africa played host to a much larger migration. Had human impacts not annihilated this larger migration it's likely that one of the most popular Fawlty Towers jokes would have ended differently, instead culminating by using the even more impressive springbok migration in the punch line – "herds of springbok sweeping majestically across the Karoo."

A small herd of springbok in the Kalahari

A small herd of springbok in the Kalahari

The great springbok migration

Gert van der Merwe's personal account of the great springbok migration is told in Lawrence Green's book Karoo. Towards the end of the nineteenth century Gert's family, shepherds and a San wagon leader moved between areas providing decent grazing for their sheep and cattle. The San are the indigenous people of this part of Southern Africa and the wagon leader used his skills to find water in the dry landscape. He must have had previous experience of the great springbok migration because when only a distant dust cloud was visible he knew urgent action was needed. The wagon leader warned the others "The trek buck are on their way and we’ll be trampled to death if we stay in the river bed". 

The wagon leader's advice proved incisive, the party heeded it and prepared. They cut down thorn trees and constructed a barrier of piercing mini-spears from branches which they arranged around the wagon and oxen. The aim was to use the thorn rampart to divert the springbok's course. They prepared pyres of dry grass and green sticks in the hope that fire and smoke would be a further line of defence against the charging horde. 

The springbok were around three miles away when Gert heard the stampede for the first time, until then he'd only been able to see the plume of dust caused by the throng of tiny feet. Small animals were already seeking shelter with meerkat, jackal and other species instinctively seeking refuge. Gert's party lit the fires and waited as the terrifying yet spectacular sight approached. 

The front runners veered around the hill, at first avoiding the thorn and fire defences but with the springbok in such vast numbers an antelope tsunami could only be held off for so long. Soon they were colliding with the defences. The injured and those who fell were often trampled by others. When the barrier could take it no longer the springbok ran among the cattle which had little choice but to join the rampage.

Gert claims the dust cloud was so thick it became hard to breathe. His wife covered their children with blankets in a desperate attempt to prevent them from being smothered. It took around an hour for the bulk of the charge to pass. The stragglers and wounded continued to pass in smaller numbers for some time afterwards.  The dust-covered camp became the site of piles of crushed and wounded springbok, the cattle gone and vegetation under foot destroyed. Gullies in the veld were filled with dead springbok. Those hesitating at the edge had been pushed in and trampled by those behind. After two weeks of searching only half the cattle were recovered. It sounds impressive but "majestically" doesn't sound like the correct word to describe the way they swept across the plains.

The end of Africa's greatest animal spectacular

This migration no longer takes place. Hunting, roads, fences, towns, farming and other human developments mean that the most recent large scale migration was in 1896. We'll never know the full intricacies, routes and biology behind the migration which was never studied by scientists. It is perhaps one of the most shocking examples of human impacts on South African wildlife. I doubt Gert and his group would have conceived of the total annihilation of such a huge biological event within a few years of their experience. South Africa's most spectacular remaining migration is the sardine run, perhaps human impacts such as over-fishing could lead to the end of that migration in our lifetimes too. I doubt that seems more unlikely to us than the loss of the springbok migration would have done to Gert.

A complex natural activity like the great springbok migration can't ever be recreated. It's neither practically possible to reconnect the huge tracts of land now bisected by roads and fences and used for farming and other human uses nor to recreate a complex behaviour such as a migration. Conservation strategies need to move with both the times and realities of human land use. One such project, in the region of the springbok migration, which does so is the Mountain Zebra-Camdeboo Corridor Project. It's aim is not to drop fences, dig up roads, encourage a migration or convert the use of farms neighbouring the national parks but rather to preserve the veld. Early indications are that this unique partnership between land owners and two national parks is going to be hugely successful and could be a model project for the future. It's a project I'll write  about for Africa Geographic in the main magazine and the link to this subsequent article will be on this website as soon as it's published in Africa Geographic.