Academic journal article Africa

'The Fertile Brain and Inventive Power of Man': Anthropogenic Factors in the Cessation of Springbok Treks and the Disruption of the Karoo Ecosystem, 1865-1908

Academic journal article Africa

'The Fertile Brain and Inventive Power of Man': Anthropogenic Factors in the Cessation of Springbok Treks and the Disruption of the Karoo Ecosystem, 1865-1908

Article excerpt


The demise of springbok treks, the irruptive migration patterns of the species in South Africa's Karoo region, has long been attributed to the rinderpest epizootic understood to have coincided in both time and space with the last of the great springbok treks. This is incorrect. Instead the cessation of springbok treks can be attributed to a variety of anthropogenic factors. This article first examines and then rejects the case for rinderpest, before introducing alternative causal factors such as the increase in livestock and human populations, the effects of fencing and the double impact of hunting and concomitant drought. These factors, it is argued, acted in concert to effectively remove the conditions necessary for springbok treks and thereby end the phenomenon. It is suggested that the local extinction of this phenomenon--a keystone species and process--is an important and heretofore unconsidered element in the decline of the Karoo ecosystem.


On attribue depuis longtemps la disparition de la migration irruptive du springbok dans la region sud-africaine du Karoo a l'epizootie de peste bovine qui semble avoir coincide, temporellement et geographiquement, avec les dernieres grandes migrations du springbok. C'est faux. En effet, on peut attribuer la fin de la migration du springbok a divers facteurs anthropogeniques. Cet article commence par examiner puis par rejeter l'argument de la peste bovine, avant de s'interesser a d'autres facteurs causaux comme l'accroissement de la population humaine et du betail, les consequences des clotures et le double impact de la chasse et de la secheresse concomitante. Il soutient que ces facteurs ont agi de concert pour supprimer efficacement les conditions necessaires a la migration du springbok et donc mettre fin a ce phenomene. L'article suggere que la disparition locale de ce phenomene (une espece et un processus cles) est un element important et jusqu'a present neglige du declin de l'ecosysteme du Karoo.


In the 1700s and 1800s, the imaginations of Dutch and British settlers at the southern tip of Africa in what was to become the Cape Colony fell captive to reports of enormous roving herds of a small gazelle-like antelope, the springbok Antidorcas marsupialis. Descriptions of herds, estimated at hundreds of thousands or even millions of animals, periodically sweeping across the then mostly unknown interior of the sub-continent, laying waste vast swathes of grazing and pasture and disrupting any attempt at profitable pastoralism, both concerned and fascinated the colonists and were featured with some fanfare and excitement in the local press. Known as the trekbokken or trekbokke (migrating antelope), by the Dutch, these swarms of small antelope and their apparently random comings and goings were wrapped in myth and mystery. It was not known precisely where the large herds came from, what drove their movements, where they disappeared to, and why and when they would return. The vast flat interior beyond the Cape Fold Mountain, a harsh and largely unsettled scrub-covered desert known as the Karoo, was the area most associated with their incursions, however, and all manner of theory and conjecture accompanied the veritable war waged against them by the colonists.

Over the latter half of the nineteenth century, while outright hunting and shooting was generally seen as the only means of staunching the periodic onslaughts, media and municipality urged multiple methods of protecting stock and grazing against the springbok treks if any progress was to be made in taming and settling the interior. Indeed, after a protracted and dramatic inundation of springbok in a concentrated area of the north-eastern Karoo in 1896 and 1897, the treks suddenly ceased and the principal mammal migration of the Karoo became extinct, so removing an important impediment to settlement and agriculture.

The cessation of springbok treks coincided with the arrival in the colony of the rinderpest epizootic: a 'cattle plague' that over the preceding five years had raced the length of Africa and decimated cattle populations from Uganda to the Transvaal and finally the Cape Colony (Henning 1956: 828-33). …

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