Cape buffalo comeback in Welgevonden

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A scorching African sun beat down on tired bodies, but the team worked relentlessly in spite of it. A rhythmic atmosphere filled the dusty boma, each member acutely aware of their individual role. There is little room for mistakes when working with Africa’s ‘Black Death’. Finally, nine hours after sunrise, 31 tonnes of muscle were loaded onto three massive game trucks. One flat tyre and some expert reversing later, an immaculate herd of 53 Cape buffalo, supplied by Magiva Game Breeders, was released onto Welgevonden Game Reserve in October 2018.

Upon contracting corridor disease 14 years ago, Welgevonden’s original buffalo herd was transferred to Mkhuze in northern KwaZulu-Natal, an area endemic to the viral strain. As per regulations, the reserve had to wait 18 months before reintroducing buffalo.

Corridor disease in Cape buffalo

Cape buffalo translocation

Determined to maintain its Big Five status, Welgevonden introduced a small group of buffalo bulls after this quarantine period. These individuals would act as sentinels of the disease and help determine whether or not Theileria parva (the causative organism of corridor disease) had established in the area. The reserve was later deemed disease-free.

How did the herd become infected? Prior to 1999, buffalo that resided outside of corridor disease controlled zones were assumed disease-free and not routinely tested. It is likely that the organism was carried into the area via a single individual when buffalo were originally introduced in 1998.

Buffalo return to Welgevonden

A breeding herd of Cape buffalo returned to Welgevonden in 2010 when SANParks facilitated the introduction of a small herd of 17 individuals onto the reserve. Unfortunately, these animals were relatively young and still small in stature, and were unlikely to withstand the predator pressure on the reserve. Instead, the herd was released into a 1 200ha, predator-free area within the reserve and allowed to breed. This herd has since grown to 45 individuals.

Before 2018, Welgevonden had not considered purchasing an additional buffalo herd, but when
an affordable herd from a nearby game breeding farm entered the market, reserve members were quick to act.

“Buffalo are an iconic species in the Big Five assemblage and although there were a few lone bulls on the reserve, the breeding herd dynamic was absent,” says Shaun McCartney, chief executive officer at Welgevonden. “Buffalo are bulk grazers and are known to convert long grassland into short, grassy environments. This localised grazing impact, along with the nutrient input of their droppings and breaking soil surface through hoofing action, is aligned with the expansion of grazing lawns on the reserve.”

An additional benefit of this particular herd was that it had been bred on a small farm with a similar terrain to Welgevonden, promoting a seamless transition between the two areas.

buffalo release welgevonden

Resolution to purchase the herd was made at a special meeting of Welgevonden members in July 2018, but the road to translocation had only just begun. Following the decision, a series of intensive animal disease tests had to be conducted before the buffalo could be transferred to their new home. All  53 individuals were fit for relocation.

The herd was transported and released onto the reserve in October. Three of the buffalo were fitted with GPS collars prior to their release, making it possible for the conservation team to closely monitor their adaptation to the reserve. Not only will these buffalo help accelerate Welgevonden’s transition from a fire- to a herbivore-driven ecosystem, these iconic bovine are sure to impress the many tourists that traverse the reserve – a win-win for both conservation and eco-tourism.

Written by  Jessica Oosthuyse

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