South Africa’s ‘Ecorangers’ Preserve Grasslands, Reduce Livestock Loss

© Tessa Mildenhall

In late 2012 I came across an ad for a job as a technical manager with Conservation South Africa (CSA), based in Matatiele in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. I had been working in Johannesburg, but it was my dream to return home to the region to eventually raise a family on the farm where my parents, brother and sister still live.

However, things didn’t look as I remembered them.

I was shocked to see that the black wattle (a kind of acacia tree that is invasive in this region) had taken over the farmlands where I grew up. These thirsty trees are shrinking wetlands that farmers depend on to water their livestock, exacerbating the freshwater scarcity that has plagued much of South Africa in recent years. Meanwhile, erosion from overgrazing has left some parts of the area inaccessible.

These impacts affect the more than 1 million people who live along the Umzimvubu River. It’s critical that we farm smarter than we have been, protecting the land while we still can.

It is my job to help improve land management in the Umzimvubu catchment. One of the upsides is that we are able to help fix these problems while providing much-needed jobs for local community members — a critical benefit, as the poverty rate here is still quite alarming.

CSA began our work in the village of Motseng, near the foot of the Drakensberg Mountains. There, 30 farmers signed an initial three-month agreement committing 800 hectares (almost 1,980 acres) of land, 242 cattle and 237 sheep to a “structure grazing” regime.

Next, CSA began the process of vaccinating, dipping and ear tagging all the animals allocated to the project. The ear tags allow us to register the animals to each owner. The vaccinations and medical dips ensure that all the animals grazing together are protected from diseases and ticks while they’re under our care.

When out grazing on the veld (grasslands), the animals are accompanied by “ecorangers” — local shepherds employed to protect livestock, maintain areas that have been cleared of invasive species and gather biological data for monitoring conditions in the veld.

Armed with GPS units, they record evidence of degraded pasture that should be avoided until it has time to recover. They are also trained in the latest techniques to limit loss of livestock to predators, such as the use of Anatolian shepherd guard dogs.

Once trained and fitted with safety gear, the ecorangers move out into the veld with their herds, following a planned grazing route and sleeping at designated overnight camping areas. The idea is to get cattle and sheep to graze much further away from farmers’ homesteads in summer. That way, in winter they can remain closer to home without degrading the grasslands.

Such an undertaking in a large communal area, where farmers move around wherever and whenever they please, is incredibly difficult; getting them to follow a structure grazing plan required United Nations-like negotiations. Our work was made easier through a great team effort, from the patient and respectful meetings that Sinegugu Zukulu, our programme manager, held with all the chiefs to the machine-like speed with which the CSA staff (Pesh and Nwabisa) recorded livestock in each village, fielding marriage proposals from the farmers along the way.

But things didn’t always go smoothly, despite our best-laid plans. Our first obstacle was a lack of tents, sleeping bags and camping equipment that herders would need when they camped out in the veld with the animals. We had forgotten to budget for shelter, and were left racking our brains for a quick solution. Thanks to our partners at Massmart, we were relieved and incredibly grateful when some amazing tents and camping equipment arrived on our doorstep.

In addition, the cost of getting food to the ecorangers every day proved to be more expensive than anticipated — but thanks to the local supermarket, SPAR, everyone is now fed and warm at night.

At first, some of the herders voiced reservations about having to stay out in the veld for long periods of time. However, they are now regularly returning home with smiles, hugs and stories of thriving livestock that can be attributed to these new herding practices. Cows are fatter because they are not walking such long distances to and from home, which bodes well for farmers at market. Reports have found that animals have fewer ticks and illnesses than before.

A survey in CSA’s Namaqualand landscape, conducted in 2012, found that farmers employing ecorangers saw a 320% reduction in livestock losses. We hope that the presence of our ecorangers will also deter livestock theft, which is a serious business in South Africa and neighbouring Lesotho.

This planned grazing approach and alien control programme is an affordable way to sustain the restoration of these communal areas while providing employment in some of the poorest areas of South Africa. It may also help inform the South African government’s forthcoming freshwater pricing strategy, which aims to use water pricing as a tool for driving improved water-use efficiency without negatively impacting small-scale or underserved water users.

Since our initial engagement with farmers in Motseng, we have already signed up a total of 110 farmers in two of the seven villages we have targeted. We are here for the long term — at least 20 years — in which time we hope to improve management of 35,000 hectares (almost 86,500 acres) of rangelands.

I’ve been inspired by the positive changes I’ve already seen in these crucial grasslands — and I know we’re only getting started.

Gerbrand Nel is the Umzimvubu technical manager at Conservation South Africa. Next Friday, May 30th, CSA Director Sarah Frazee will be presenting about this program at the “Ecosystems, Economy and Society” conference at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.