Endangered Species Handbook

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Grasslands, Shrublands, Deserts

Drylands of the World: AFRICA: Page 5

     Another arid region, the Kalahari Desert and surrounding grasslands of Botswana, was the scene of a great wildlife catastrophe and massive ecological damage.  Early in the 20th century, there may have been almost as many White-bearded Wildebeests in the southern herd as now survive in the Serengeti.  The herds numbered at least 272,000 in Botswana (Owens and Owens 1984).  Wildebeest from throughout southern Botswana traditionally came together during migration in long, single-file lines, headed toward their ancestral feeding area of lakes, shady woodlands and grasslands north of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (Owens and Owens 1984).  Over the eons, the wildebeests had adapted to this hot, dry climate and semi-arid grassland.  Vast numbers of Beisa Oryx, Giraffe, zebra and other ungulates were a part of this ecosystem.
     Europeans, mainly from South Africa, took over enormous tracts of land to raise cattle.  Fencing of livestock began in Botswana in the 1950s to control hoof-and-mouth, also known as foot-and-mouth disease.  It was thought that this disease was endemic in wild ungulates such as antelope, who spread it to domestic livestock.  In fact, there is no proof of this, and it is likely that the disease was introduced to Africa by domestic livestock. The disease may be airborne and, moreover, vaccinations have controlled it in many countries (Owens and Owens 1984).  Ranchers, however, had been told by their European sponsors that the beef would be rejected when exported unless fences were built.  With subsidies from the World Bank and European countries, they constructed a fence 800 miles long to separate the wildebeests, oryx, gazelles and other wild ungulates from cattle (Owens and Owens 1992).  These ranches produced more beef at first than could be easily marketed, creating a huge surplus of beef in Europe and little profit to the ranchers.
     The water and grasslands crucial to the survival of the herds were blocked by the fences.  The wildebeests walked for days along the fences, hungrier and thirstier every day; they were joined by Giraffe, Gemsbok and zebras whose masses measured 3 miles wide and 5 miles long (Owens and Owens 1984).  In 1961 and 1964, 80,000 wildebeests died near the fence, and during these years, an observer estimated that 10 percent of their population died every five days; in 1970, a massive die-off decimated the herds (Owens and Owens 1984).  By the early 1990s, the once great southern wildebeest herd had been reduced to fewer than 30,000 animals (Nowak 1999).  At least 250,000 wildebeests were killed between 1970 and 1984 (Owens and Owens 1984).  The deaths of at least 1.5 million large animals have been called the worst wildlife slaughter of the 20th century (Owens and Owens 1992). 
     The wildlife die-offs had not been publicized to the world until two American biologists, Mark and Delia Owens, came to the Kalahari in 1974 to study Lions and the threatened Brown Hyenas (Hyaena brunnea), native to southern Africa.  These hyenas, found only in portions of southern Africa, have been exterminated over much of their range by ranchers; they are continuing to decline and occupy only about half their original distribution after centuries of trapping and poisoning (Kingdon 1997). 
     The Owenses radio-tracked Brown Hyenas from a small airplane, and in 1979, Mark Owens happened to fly over the tragic spectacle of the dying wildebeest herd.  The wildebeests had continued their disastrous migration year after year because no other source of grass and water existed in this parched environment.  Mark Owens witnessed hundreds of animals collapsing from hunger, fatigue and thirst.  A Giraffe that could have stepped over the fence was so weakened that he got caught in the wire and pitched forward, breaking his leg.  His hind legs became ensnared, and he pawed the ground helplessly until he died (Owens and Owens 1984).   The main fence north of the Central Kalahari Reserve cut off all but 2 miles of riverine and grassland habitat, and by the time the wildebeests found the end of the fence and saw the lake in the distance, many were so exhausted that they collapsed before reaching it (Owens and Owens 1984).  Others, having finally reached Lake Xau, were so weakened that they drowned.  In their path were domestic cattle, herded by local people, who had stripped the area of every blade of grass, leaving a concrete-like surface covered with grey powder.  Here, even the strongest, prime wildebeests died, their knees buckling and muzzles sinking into the dust.  In 1983, 60,000 wildebeests died near Lake Xau (Owens and Owens 1992).  Armed men employed by the ranchers patrolled the fences, killing any wild animal that came near. These crews made a business of selling the meat in the country's capital, Gaborone.  One of the owners of Safari South had a photograph of a pile of antelope bones "as large as a two-story house" taken near a fence (Owens and Owens 1992).  On one occasion, Mark saw the stragglers attempt to reach Lake Xau in the distance, when a truck full of men drove into the herd, killing many under their wheels.  Then the men let their dogs attack the wildebeests, hamstringing and disemboweling them, before coming in with knives to finish them off (Owens and Owens 1984).  Owens buzzed the men, flying just over their heads to frighten them, and over the next days continued making flights, which apparently succeeded in stopping this slaughter. 
     The wildebeest die-offs were just the tip of the iceberg.  Sixty miles south, up to 10,000 Red Hartebeests (Alcelaphus buselaphus) died each year, along with uncounted Gemsbok, Giraffes, Springbok and other desert antelope (Owens and Owens 1992).  The decline in the southern herds continued in spite of reports submitted by Owens to the Botswana government on the catastrophic situation.  They discovered, in fact, that the government's own wildlife department was well aware of the effects of the fencing and had earlier reports of huge wildlife mortalities in their files (Owens and Owens 1984).
     The large ranches of the Kalahari had been drawing water from fossil aquifers which ran dry.  Ranchers then moved on, with World Bank loans, to new areas, leaving in their wake "sterile wastelands covered with coils of fence wire and piles of bleached skeletons, the remains of tens of thousands of antelope whose migrations to water had been blocked" (Owens and Owens 1992).  The ranchers ran out of wilderness and appealed to the Botswana government to dissolve the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, the second or third largest wildlife preserve in the world, so that they could graze additional cattle. They did not succeed in this goal, but the Owenses (1992) saw livestock 20 miles inside the reserve’s boundaries in 1987.
     Unable to stop this slaughter officially or through appeals to major conservation organizations, the Owenses wrote a book, Cry of the Kalahari, published in 1984, which outlined the situation and their recommendations to remove fencing, stop human settlements along Lake Xau, and reestablish the wildlife corridor.  Excerpts were printed in Life magazine. They noted that the United Kingdom (UK) government had annually donated 14.5 million British pounds to Botswana as a subsidy to the beef industry, and suggested that the money should instead be used to promote ecotourism and wildlife-related industries (Owens and Owens 1984).  A filmmaker, Rick Lamba, made a documentary of the slaughter in the early 1980s entitled “Frightened Wilderness,” which was shown on the Turner cable networks and to the United States Congress. 
     Finally, the World Bank funds for these cattle projects ended.  They had proved a financial debacle as well as an ecological one, with ranchers never repaying their loans, and the beef sold at 10 percent of what it cost to produce it (Owens and Owens 1992).  In the intervening years, the wildebeest herd continued to decline.  Between 1979 and 1994, this herd dropped 94 percent, and the hartebeest population fell 83 percent (Boffey 1997).  Outside criticism finally resulted in a few improvements.  A freeze was put on new settlements along Lake Xau's shores, and the Kalahari Conservation Society was founded, which is monitoring the situation (Owens and Owens 1992).  Poaching and harassment of the wildebeest has continued, however, and they are shot, speared and clubbed in their migration, which is likely to end altogether without more dramatic changes in policy.  Although World Bank funding has ended, cattle ranches and fences remain, decimating the remaining wildfire.
     The Kuke cordon fence that separates the Central Kalahari Game Reserve from areas to the north has been expanded, worsening the plight of this wildlife.  Beginning in late 1995, Botswana constructed three new fences in the northwest to prevent a cattle lung disease from spreading from Namibian cattle (Boffey 1997).  Two parallel fences of electrified steel wire were built on the northern border with Namibia, extended to meet the border fence, effectively sealing off this area to migrating herds (Boffey 1997).  In August 1997, a small plane flying over the area documented antelope attempting to find a way through the fence, and well-worn animal tracks indicating that many others had also tried in vain (Boffey 1997). 
     The Owenses (1992) describe the changes that took place in this desert:  "The Kalahari was teeming with wildlife whose migrations had adapted them to long droughts and sparse grasslands. Large-scale commercial ranchers in the Kalahari killed off hundreds of thousands of wild animals, overgrazed the desert, and depleted the water from fossilized aquifers. They left a wasteland that was good for neither wild nor domestic stock."   Along with the wildebeests and other ungulates went the once large populations of Lions, Leopard, and Brown Hyenas.

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