In South Africa, the future of sustainable ranching looks bright

Herders, South Africa

A herder brings his cattle to auction in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Conservation South Africa is using auctions to improve grazing practices and support sustainable livelihoods. (© Trond Larsen)

Editor’s note: The article below is excerpted from a Special Report on South Africa exploring two South African landscapes where doing right by nature and doing right by people are the same. In this excerpt, originally published on August 17, 2017, we highlight the work of Tori Linder, a Conservation International (CI) staff member and fifth-generation rancher. Scroll to the end to watch a video about her efforts to restore South Africa’s rangelands. 

The Eastern Cape of South Africa is home to Africa’s most biodiverse grassland.

Looking out across a native grassland, one could be excused for imagining an overgrown lawn. But a healthy and productive rangeland means more than just tall grass; it means a self-regenerative system that can support animals over the long term. A field full of waist-high grass, if invasive or inedible, can be useless. But a patch of barren soil with the right seed bank and fertilizer can be healthy range, if given time enough to regrow.

When animals graze the range, they impact the grass’s ability to regenerate and grow. Casual grazing by dispersed herbivores can mean that only the edible species get clipped, leaving only unsavory varieties behind to take over. And without time to rest, the savory grass regrows at the expense of its roots, gradually losing the ability to bounce back to future grazing.

For millennia, predators like lion and cheetah kept herbivores on the plains of Africa grouped into herds, which meant intensive grazing followed by rest for grassland plants. But for livestock that lack natural herding behavior, like cattle, humans must step in to keep the animals from nibbling a rangeland into degradation. That means mimicking the natural regimen of intensive grazing followed by regrowth.

Tori Linder, a fifth-generation rancher who serves as the sustainable livestock coordinator in CI’s Africa field division, frames the challenge with urgent precision.

“Rangelands cover 70 percent of sub-Saharan Africa,” she says. “If they are not managed sustainably, Africa’s development will never succeed.”

“One of the things that I think people would find most surprising about livestock is that it can actually be good for the environment, if produced on natural rangelands,” she said. “On the grasslands and savannas of sub-Saharan Africa, livestock have a valuable role to play in mimicking the ecosystem function of wildlife that once covered these areas.”

“Grazing and water translate to life,” she said. “When the ecosystem is unhealthy, communities pay the consequences.”

Read the full series, “South Africa side by side with nature,” here.

Jamey Anderson is a senior writer at Conservation International.

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