In the arid mountain ranges of the Little Karoo in the Western Cape, a remarkable vision is quickly becoming reality. A dedicated team of conservationists is reintroducing animals that once ranged across the vast plains in great numbers. These include lion, elephant, buffalo, cheetah, rhino and hippo.
Reintroducing these herbivores and predators into the 54 000ha Sanbona reserve is just one part of the project, which aims to return the entire ecosystem to a state of self-sustaining equilibrium. In today’s world, this means generating sufficient revenue flows through eco tourism. It is a delicate balancing act that pits the needs of man against those of nature.
Of the larger animals, there are currently five elephants and several buffaloes. Their impact on the vegetation is also keenly observed. One of the conservationists, Ryno Erasmus, is working closely with a biologist from the University of Cape Town to conduct a “strip” monitoring programme. This programme involves using surveying equipment to chart a straight line of 30 trees. Each tree in this line is meticulously observed: its GPS location, its height and width, leaf and shoot density, number of branches and percentage of bark coverage are all carefully logged. Over time, the trees are inspected to determine how much elephants are damaging them.
The rangers have been astounded to discover that the elephants seem mostly to be targeting alien vegetation, which they almost completely destroy. In contrast, they treat the only significantly large indigenous tree, the Karoo acacia, with care and respect – stripping very little bark and only a few shoots off any tree at one time.