Written by Sean Zeederberg:
Wildebeest have always fascinated me and in more ways than one, from the local beliefs to their humorous appearance and curious mannerisms. The local Shangaan people of the Lowveld have the name Nkonkoni to describe these unusual beasts, which means ‘male on male’. The only slight sexual dimorphism between males and females makes them look almost identical. It is also believed that when the higher power was creating this wild beast, he had exhausted all his ideas. So he decided to not let all the spare body parts go to waste and came up with this incredibly intriguing individual that was blessed with strange looks.
Known to be more successful in drier years, the current population of wildebeest appear to be thriving on Londolozi, even after the intense drought that ran from 2014 through to 2016. Following the trends, one can see that populations go through a cyclical increase and decrease. Being affected by seasonal rainfall and increased predation, and availability of food and water.
Key to their survival is the synchronised birthing of their young in December alongside the impala lambs, and this contributes to the cyclical changes in numbers. Many of the young and very vulnerable calves are killed by predators, but the majority do survive. The new generations bring a new energy and sense of excitement and life seems to be somewhat joyful.
However, this hasn’t always been the case in the Sabi Sands and Kruger National Park (KNP). The Sabi Sands Wildtuin (SSW – Wildtuin is a game reserve in Afrikaans, one of South Africa’s local languages) was a tract of privately owned land, initially used for cattle ranching while concurrently unrestrictive on wild animals’ movement between the area and KNP. This state lasted up until 1961, when authorities feared a Foot and Mouth outbreak amongst cattle would reach resident buffalo populations in KNP. The construction of a 72km long fence along the border of the Sabi Sands and KNP was the solution. In doing so they could save the buffalo, but did not foresee the devastation this fence would cause.
Severing the migration routes of the wildebeest had a knock-on effect which altered not only the animal populations but also the land beneath their feet. The western boundary sub-population was most adversely affected. Not being able to reach their winter grazing grounds, some wildebeest became frantic and in a panic were unsuccessful when trying to hurdle the fence; becoming entangled or injured, the animals did not survive. Other on-looking wildebeest remained in the areas surrounding the fence and shortly over-grazed, trampled and devastated the region to such an extent that it no longer offered any sustenance. The death toll was extensive and further exacerbated by the gluttonous predators and scavengers. On top of the co-existing horror a drought hit in 1965 and wildebeest still had no access to winter grazing grounds.
Determination to reduce the devastation resulted in the fence being cut, allowing wildebeest to pour through and eventually reach the water found in the Sand and Sabi Rivers in the west. After about 3000 wildebeest had flooded through, the fence was repaired, enclosing them in the Sabi Sands, with a fence also running along the western boundary preventing animals leaving and wreaking potential havoc in the rural farm lands.
Bounded by the fences, wildebeest who prefer to migrate through more open habitat were confined to seeplines as these were the only suitably open areas. A seepline is an area where underground water flowing downhill meets an impermeable layer and is forced to seep out on to the surface. The dense concentrations on small open areas lead to the trampling of vegetation and compaction of soils and clogged the seeplines, ultimately severely impacting the landscape.
Wildebeest then outcompeted other animals such as waterbuck and sable causing them to become locally extinct, but allowed animals such as impala and zebra to thrive.
After the establishment of the lodge, Londolozi modified areas for the wildebeest through patch mowing. It was believed that by maintaining the land the wildebeest would thrive and in turn the predators would thrive. Lions in particular were already thriving and had easy pickings among the weakened and trapped wildebeest.
Finally in 1993, the fence between SSW and KNP was torn down, in an attempt to re-establish free movement of animals across the borders. However, the wildebeest populations had lost their migratory instinct and opening the fences did not at first yield a growth in population. In fact, a constant decrease in the population was seen, reaching a point in 2003 where there were only 75 wildebeest left in the SSW. Immediate action was required to prevent the local extinction of wildebeest. The strategy was to exchange rhino for wildebeest with reserves in Swaziland. Dave Varty recalls about 4500 wildebeest being translocated in total, and although initially boosting the numbers these early reintroductions came from a predator-free environment; lions were not something that these wildebeest had encountered before, and their lack of predator savvy led to most of them being taken down by the big cats.
Since the removal of the fences and a few reintroductions of these funny looking antelope (yes, they are antelope!), the numbers of wildebeest at Londolozi, this small corner of the 6 million acre wilderness that is the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park, have stabilised, and even increased slightly. In the Eco Journals of just over a decade ago, individual herds were named and monitored, so fragile was the population deemed to be. These days however, to keep track of each herd and territorial bull would be much harder, given how well spaced and plentiful the wildebeest are over the reserve.
Despite numerous setbacks over the years, from droughts to human interference to losses under the teeth and claws of the predators, the often-overlooked wildebeest population, an integral part of the natural grazing ecosystem here, seems well on the road to recovery.
Not only wildebeest, but elephants, lions and many other flagship species have benefitted enormously from the removal of the fence between the Kruger National Park and the Sabi Sands, proof that space is one of the most crucial factors in maintaining a thriving ecosystem.