Historic springbok migrations

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Migrations are usually synonymous with the great wildebeest migration of the Masai Mara. However, massive springbok migrations were synonymous with South Africa’s history. René de Klerk investigates…

Springbok in the tall grass at Tiger Canyon Private Game Reserve. Photo: Lorna Drew

Five facts

• Trekbokke: The nickname given to the springboks migrating across the Karoo landscape.

1848: A year with one of the largest migrations on record – a single herd of springbok took three days to pass Beaufort West.

1896–1897: The last time the great migration took place.

Mixed feeders: Springbok browse, but they also eat young succulent grass before it becomes woody.

Rinderpest: An outbreak of the disease in 1896 caused large numbers of springbok to die.

Reading: Trekbokke of the Cape Colony by SC Cronwright Shreiner.

Historic references of large herds of springbok migrating across the South African landscape are abundant, with stories of herds migrating past towns for days at a time, and hunters taking advantage of the situation, often shooting more than one antelope with a single shot. It is no wonder that this iconic species is the national animal of South Africa, and also the icon of the country’s rugby team.

Springbok and youngster. Photo: Lorna Drew.

While these migrations no longer take place on such a grand scale due to overhunting, fencing and disease, you can’t blame farmers for trying to control their numbers. Nobody really knew about the damage they were causing at the time.

Droves of springbok ran through the streets of towns and consumed gardens and flower beds, leaving absolute devastation in their wake. Sheep farmers often had to give up after a herd of trekbokke moved through, as they would leave nothing behind for grazing sheep. Farmers tried to balance their losses by hunting springbok on a huge scale.

By the late 19th century, farmers started putting up barbed wire fencing to prevent the antelope from decimating their property, with little success. The increase in the human population and destruction of family livelihoods called for renewed action. This resulted in the last great migration in 1896.

These massive movements stopped before scientists were able to study them, but it is believed that the movement was based on the availability of grazing influenced by drought. Numbers dating back to 2013 estimate there are approximately 2–2,5 million springboks in South Africa with the majority protected on privately owned land.

Springbok are able to survive on very little water, especially in the arid parts of the country. Photo: Lorna Drew

Springbok are the most abundantly occurring plains antelope in the arid parts of South Africa and were previously found in large numbers in dry grasslands and shrublands of south-western and southern Africa. They are found in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, with reduced numbers surviving in Angola. Springbok do not occur in eSwatini and went extinct in Lesotho due to overhunting.

Limited migration is still possible in a few spots today. There is dispersal across the South African, Namibian and Botswana borders within the Kgalagadi and Richtersveld Transfrontier Parks.

Springbok in the Karoo landscape. Photo: Lorna Drew

In parts of the Karoo, long-term plans include restoring animal migration routes. Numbers in the Karoo are increasing, with private reserves such as Tiger Canyon including large populations on their property. Samara Private Game Reserve has recently reintroduced a few hundred springbok to its property and with the establishment of the Mountain Zebra Camdeboo Protected Environment creating a corridor between Mountain Zebra and Camdeboo national parks, springbok and other wildlife might once again move freely over private land between protected areas, albeit in much smaller numbers.

Written by René de Klerk

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