The return of the Trekbokke

Until 1896 the Karoo was the scene of Africa’s largest wildlife migration,
when the trekbokke – a grand migration of springbok – periodically filled the veld as far as the eye could see. Now the Nama-Karoo Foundation (NKF) wants to revive what could be South Africa’s biggest tourist attraction, says NKF’s spokesperson Marina Beal.
Issue date : 23 Janaury 2009

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Until 1896 the Karoo was the scene of Africa’s largest wildlife migration,
when the trekbokke – a grand migration of springbok – periodically filled the veld as far  as the eye could see. Now the Nama-Karoo Foundation (NKF) wants to revive what could be South Africa’s biggest tourist attraction, says NKF’s spokesperson Marina Beal. Roelof Bezuidenhout reports.

Many consider the trekbok phenomenon, the grand migration of springbok herds across the Karoo, a lost wonder of the natural world, though pioneer farmers caught in the path of hundreds of thousands of stampeding springbok would have disagreed. Springbok would, for example, invade and run right through the town of Beaufort West for three days.

Even a tiny herd of 30 of these graceful, leaping antelope gliding across a Karoo farm can compete with any ecotourism spectacle South Africa has to offer. Now the Nama-Karoo Foundation (NKF), a conservation agency working to preserve the Karoo’s cultural and natural heritage, is promoting the large-scale reintroduction of springbok to the Northern Cape and Free State, where they could replace sheep as the natural grazer in the same way cattle have given way to bison in parts of the US. Already, over 20 000ha have been opened for springbok and their plains game companions, such as wildebeest and zebra.

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The NKF’s booklet Conservation Guidelines for the Karoo Landowner notes conservation of the Karoo is 99% in the hands of private landowners. According to the NKF’s Marina Beal, they hope that by working with farmers and communities they can return the trekbok phenomenon to the Karoo, though on a much smaller scale.
“We’d like to see more fences removed so that large tracts of land can be combined, allowing the process of roaming springbok to function again,” she says. “While the trekbokke temporarily destroyed the vegetation in their path, they also churned up and fertilised the soil. The migration is a quintessential ecological process of the Karoo.”
The last trekbokke were recorded in 1896 and the phenomenon is little-known today. As part of a project to create awareness, and use the trekbokke to explore the issues surrounding restocking, the NKF is planning a roaming trekbok exhibition for 2010. It will cross the Northern Cape from Prieska to Victoria West, and into the Free State from Philippolis to Bloemfontein.

The idea is to mimic the historic migrations and depict the natural history of the springbok and the trekbokke, past and present. “It will raise issues about ecosystems, grazing and hunting and the value of springbok to people and place,” says Marina. “A trekbok or springbok brand could be created, so that people can connect their own activities, art or craft to the central exhibition.”
But before the springbok can return to the region in large numbers, reinstating them as the Karoo’s dominant herbivore must be proven ecologically and economically feasible.

“The biltong hunting industry is far bigger than the trophy hunting industry and grazing by domestic livestock has disturbed the ecosystem on a large scale,” says Marina. “Ultimately, Karoo farmers will be essential to transforming and restoring the region.”
Visit the Nama-Karoo Foundation website at, e-mail
[email protected], or write to PO Box 140 Richmond, Northern Cape 7090 or call (053) 693 0901.    |fw

The Nama-Karoo Foundation

The Nama-Karoo Foundation (NKF) was created in 2004. While all the world’s big conservation agencies are active in South Africa – including the World Wildlife Foundation, whose founder was from Graaff-Reinet – the Karoo is the oldest and least-researched of South Africa’s seven ecological regions and the largest of its four desert biomes. Less than 1% of the area is protected.

With both local and international supporters, the foundation is managed from the Karoo by people with a passion for the Karoo. “The NKF doesn’t buy land, but we manage the Nama-Karoo Trust, a tax-exempt land trust for creating conservation areas on the Great Escarpment and Great Plains,” explains NKF’s Marina Beal.
The NKF has niche networks involving, for example, landowners, government, non-profit organisations and universities, supplying information about conservation-related issues like architecture or power line safety for big birds.

They also help researchers network and find research sites, and supply information and photographs to numerous initiatives. Recently, the NKF began exploring the relationship between South Africa’s national bird and mammal – the blue crane and the springbok.

Springbok migration: a first-hand account – a tale from Lawrence Green’s Karoo

“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. “Hare and jackal and other small animals were racing past the hill and taking no notice of the humans. 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 the wagon and were jammed in the wheels, injured 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, and everyone found it 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. The buck had brushed off all herbage in their passing. “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 a 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.”