Buffalo in Namibia

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    Buffalo in Namibia

    Picture of Buffalo taken on the Waterberg Plateau National Park

    Under the IUCN Red Data Book system, the Southern Savanna subspecies of buffalo Syncerus caffer caffer is classified as "Lower Risk (conservation dependent)" by the Antelope Specialist Group (ASG 1998) and it is evident from the data on the Taxon Data Sheet that the subspecies cannot be regarded as threatened in any global or regional context.

    Even at the national level, the Namibian buffalo population cannot be considered "vulnerable" under the criteria; although its 'extent of occurrence' in the Caprivi is less than 20,000 km2, within that range its 'area of occupancy' is greater than 2,000 km2. Because it is linked to the large Botswana buffalo population, it would not qualify for any category of threat based on population numbers.

    However, the numbers of buffalo in Caprivi are are well below carrying capacity and perhaps the greatest danger to the Namibian buffalo population is the potential fragmentation which could arise if links were severed with the Botswana population due to injudicious application of veterinary control fencing or the spread of settlement and subsistence agriculture within the Caprivi - resulting in the isolation of subpopulations.

    Buffalo occurred widely in Namibia prior to the great rinderpest epidemic at the end of the nineteenth century but were eliminated virtually throughout the country by the disease. In the first half of the 20th century, they had successfully re-colonised part of the historic range in the north of the country but were destroyed directly and indirectly as a result of veterinary control measures. It is seen as a desirable conservation initiative to re-establish the species in some of the areas where it formerly survived.

    Buffalo play a key ecological role as a bulk grazer. By removing a large overburden of tall grasses, they facilitate access for other large mammals which would normally avoid such habitats and their grazing tends to alter the grass sward in a manner which favours other grazers.

    On private ranches in South Africa and Zimbabwe which at one time supported cattle and have since converted exclusively to wildlife landuse, it is very noticeable that the absence of large bulk grazers often results in a rank sward of tall grasses which are avoided by most wildlife species. There is now a major drive by wildlife farmers to acquire buffalo in order to rectify this type of 'unbalanced' ecosystem.

    In Namibia, the majority of large private farms in the north of the country carry both cattle and wildlife. Wildlife tends to be an auxiliary land use which supplements cattle income, although:
    • wildlife is a more profitable land use than cattle in arid and semi-arid areas;
    • the concept that wildlife and cattle may complement one another has been shown to be false (Martin 1989) - cattle detract from the higher-valued land use which is possible with wildlife when large bulk grazers such as buffalo are included in the species mix;
    • the results of Taylor's (1985, p256) study suggest that buffalo use grazing resources more efficiently than do domestic livestock;

    Two explanations, possibly acting in combination, offer themselves for the Namibian situation:
    • Veterinary restrictions preclude the inclusion of buffalo in multi-species management systems on large ranches and, therefore, to preserve the desirable habitats for many wildlife species, cattle play the ecological role which buffalo would normally fulfil in 'natural' systems.
    • The other contributing factor is that 'ownership' systems for cattle in Namibia are absolute - far stronger than those for wildlife. Given full devolution of proprietorship over wildlife, it is possible that wildlife as an exclusive land use would become more prevalent in Namibia.

    Levels of illegal hunting could affect the survival of buffalo. Tagg, Mayes and Scheepers (pers.comm. 10/10/02) state that significant illegal hunting is taking place. A population model for buffalo has been developed to explore the maximum illegal harvest which a buffalo population of 3,000 could sustain. It is assumed that mortality would affect both sexes and all ages equally.

    The present legal trophy quota for sport hunting buffalo is unlikely to have any impact on the buffalo population. If the population as a whole is about 3,000 animals it could tolerate a quota of some 90 trophy bulls. If, as assumed in the financial analysis for sport hunting in the Caprivi, there is a 'huntable population' of about 1,000 animals outside protected areas, a quota of 30 animals would be sustainable.

    The Historic Distribution of Buffalo in Namibia
    The Pre-Rinderpest Period: In Namibia, the range for buffalo may once have been larger Buffalo may have frequented the full length of the Orange River and have been recorded on the Lowen River near Keetmanshoop in 1761; on the Lewer River near Gibeon in 1791; again on the Lowen River in 1835; and at Bullspoort near the Naukluft Park in 1837 (Skead 1982). Buffalo were recorded possibly as seasonal visitors to the Gondwana Canyon Park east of the Fish River Canyon (Brown 2000).

    The Twentieth Century: The great rinderpest epidemic reduced buffalo to very low numbers throughout southern Africa. The Namibian population, which lived over most of its range in marginal conditions anyway, was brought to extinction except in the Caprivi. In the early 1900s buffalo were sighted frequently in the Caprivi, where, because of its more favourable rainfall and its location, populations were able to recover quickly.

    In the main body of Namibia populations recovered more slowly, with the recolonisation coming from Botswana and Angola.

    There are early sightings in the Khaudom area (Mattenklodt 1916, [in Gaertes 1967]) and in Ovamboland (Hahn 1925). Buffalo increased their range southwards and westwards and, by the 1950s, records were common in the Grootfontein, Otjiwarongo and Gobabis farming areas (Gaerdes 1967). A sighting is reported in the Windhoek farming area in 1957 and a small group of buffalo had established themselves in Etosha by 1963. However, the expansion of buffalo was to proceed no further: from the 1960s onwards, the epoch of veterinary control fencing was to determine the future distribution of buffalo in southern Africa.

    Buffalo were eradicated from large areas as part of the veterinary campaign but, in any case, the construction of the fences alone would have been responsible for many deaths. A group of buffalo which were isolated from Botswana by the international boundary veterinary fence later formed the nucleus for the present foot and mouth disease-free herd in Tsumkwe.

    The present available range for buffalo in the Caprivi is determined by patterns of human settlement, the amount of land cleared for agriculture and the grazing requirements of cattle.

    Roberts (1997, p31) but includes most of the Forest Reserve as potential core area and excludes the southern part of Kabe and Katimo Mulilo constituencies where dense agriculture is likely to preclude the long term survival of buffalo.
    Using the data from the Caprivi Atlas (Mendelsohn and Roberts 1997), a "maximum possible range" for buffalo can be defined by excluding all consolidated areas of land cleared for agriculture and areas where human populations exceed 20 persons/km2. This removes about 2,500 km2 of land, mainly in the far east and far west of the Strip, from the total area of 20,000 km2 to give an area of about 17,500 km2. In doing this, it is assumed that water supplies for buffalo could be developed in the central part of the West Caprivi.

    A more modest " medium range" would exclude virtually all cleared areas no matter how small, all areas where the human densities are greater than 10 km2 and areas to which buffalo are unlikely to gain access because of the bottlenecks created by surrounding agriculture. This area amounts to slightly more than 9,000 km2.

    Foot and Mouth Disease & Other Transboundary Animal Diseases in Namibia
    Namibia is zoned for animal disease purposes by the Veterinary Cordon Fence (VCF), necessitated by the risk of major Transboundary Animal Diseases (TAD’s) such as Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) and Contagious Bovine Pleuro Pneumonia (CBPP, Lungsickness).

    Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) Infectedzone: Caprivi & eastern Kavango regions.
    Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) Buffer zone: western part of Kavango, Ohangwena, Oshikoto north, Oshana, Omusati and Kunene north.
    Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) Free zone: Kunene south, Oshikoto south, Otjozondjupa, Omaheke, Khomas, Erongo, Hardap and Karas regions.
    Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) Surveillance zone: is +2 farming units wide south of Veterinary Cordon Fence (VCF).

    Regions of Namibia Map

    Foot & Mouth Disease Zones in Namibia 1994 -2009 (click on image to enlarge)

    The aim of the Transboundary Animal Diseases (TAD) Strategy is to improve animal health with the ultimate objective of declaring the NCAs free of FMD and Lungsickness through the implementation of disease surveillance and controls. This will allow the free movement of Livestock and Livestock Products within Namibia and have the potential of gaining access to a wide range of national and international markets.

    Namibia Buffalo

    In Namibia, most of the Caprivi is good habitat for buffalo except where distance to water is a constraint. Buffalo are very much dependent on existing water supplies in the Caprivi and, for a large part of every year, this means they are tied to the large rivers.

    In the remainder of the country, any area which is capable of supporting cattle would also support buffalo. Carrying capacities would decline towards the arid south and west and, in areas where annual rainfall is less than 250mm , buffalo would be unlikely to survive (Stewart and Stewart 1963). Large parts of the north have held buffalo in the past and could probably carry modest densities today were it not for veterinary policies and practices which preclude this. Given adequate water and rainfall of 300-400 mm/annum, buffalo might achieve densities of the order of 1/km2 or a biomass of about 5kg/ha (Coe, Cumming and Philipson 1976).

    The two primary stakeholders in the Caprivi are the State and the local communities.
    In 1996, a legislative amendment provided for custodial rights over wildlife to be granted to communities on communal land subject to their forming and registering "Conservancies". The provision grants partial rights for common property management and use of wildlife in defined areas (Corbett and Jones 2000). By 2002, 15 conservancies had been registered, and some 35 more are in the process of being developed. All of these are within the potential buffalo range, and the outcome for buffalo in the Caprivi depends critically on their success

    Namibia Disease Free Buffalo
    Besides the main population in the Caprivi disease-free buffalo were introduced to Waterberg Plateau Park (1981-1991) and in 1996 thirty buffalo were penned in a quarantine camp in Bushmanland, Tsumkwe (within the Nyae Nyae conservancy) which is north of the main veterinary cordon fence.

    The Tsumkwe population and the Waterberg buffalo present a conservation and economic opportunity to the Namibian scientific and management authorities. There are some 300 disease-free buffalo located in the two sites and both groups are beginning to exceed carrying capacity. The buffalo are extremely valuable because they are disease-free (In 2002 prices in the southern African live sales market for buffalo were ca. N$200,000 per animal). The value of the animals provides a unique opportunity to fund buffalo conservation efforts in Namibia and strengthen conservancies. Introductions of buffalo to protected areas where they formerly occurred will enhance the biological diversity of the parks and may result in a marginal increase of tourism revenues.

    Southern Savanna Buffalo Range Map (click on image to enlarge)

    The Waterberg Plateau National Park Population
    The primary stakeholder for the Waterberg population is the Ministry of Environment and Tourism since the buffalo occur on their land.

    Data is available for the years 1988-1992 and 2000. The last estimate for the present population was 184 in the year 2000. The introduction of 48 buffalo (48 animals biased in favour of females and with few juveniles) took place between 1981 and 1991 at an average rate of 5 per year (Erb 1992).
    - Most animals came directly from Addo National Park in South Africa
    - 11 came from from Willem Pretorius Game Reserve in the Free State in 1985-1986 (presumably these animals originated from Addo stock)
    - 4 were buffalo of East African origin imported from a Czechoslovakian Zoo in 1986

    Carrying capacity:
    With an annual rainfall of about 500mm, the sustainable density of buffalo is about 1/km2, i.e. some 400 animals for the Park. This ceiling will soon be reached and it can be expected that both habitats and buffalo will deteriorate in the future if no management actions are taken.

    The Tsumkwe Population
    The primary stakeholders for the Tsumkwe buffalo are the Nyae Nyae conservancy on whose land they are situated. Because of its investment in capturing the buffalo and maintaining them at Tsumkwe, the Ministry of Environment must also be seen as a primary stakeholder. As in the case of the Waterberg buffalo, the identification of other stakeholders is dependent on the management decisions for the future of these buffalo.

    With the erection of the Veterinary Cordon Fence in the early 1960s some 200 buffalo in the Bushmanland area which were isolated from Botswana by the international boundary veterinary fence.

    Most of this group died of thirst and starvation and, by 1988, the only survivors were 18 of the original herd which later formed the nucleus for the present foot and mouth disease-free herd in Tsumkwe. It is significant that, up until the time of their quarantine in 1996, this herd had been in regular contact with cattle without transmitting the disease. One animal was destroyed because it tested FMD positive but the present herd of 68 animals is remarkably free of various diseases and is commercially valuable.

    Carrying Capacity:
    In the low rainfall conditions of Tsumkwe the carrying capacity is well below 1 buffalo/km2 and the present population of 68 animals in 2,400ha is grossly overstocked (i.e. 3/km2) and is having to receive supplementary feeding.

    Vet Restrictions
    The veterinary fence along the international boundary between Botswana and Namibia came into place in the early 1960s.

    In Botswana, the first cordon fence - the Kuke fence - was constructed in 1958. The period from 1960 to the present time is characterised by continuous modification and addition of veterinary control fences in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

    The preoccupation of State veterinarians in the 1960s was to protect cattle against Foot and Mouth disease infections from buffalo. However, in the past 40 years the number of diseases which potentially affect cattle and which now have to be considered as veterinary control problems has increased exponentially and produced a complex situation. Morkel (1988) gives an excellent catalogue of these diseases. It is clear that there a number of strong arguments for keeping wild buffalo separated from cattle - as much for their own protection as for the possible threat to cattle. Wildlife management as a land use which competes with cattle ranching. Such competition should be seen as economically healthy and, in a time of changing market values, it is in the national interest that neither of the two alternative land uses should prejudice the other. Rather, the most efficient of the two land uses should ultimately predominate or a balance should be reached where each land use is occupying the economic and ecological niche where it is more profitable than the other. What should not be acceptable are measures which foreclose options or artificially subsidise one or other of the two land uses.

    The Introduction of Buffalo on Commercial Farms
    There has been sufficient research to argue that on marginal land in southern Africa the highest valued and most ecologically beneficial land uses are those which rely on natural resources - more specifically in the case under discussion - wildlife.

    Those who are investing in wildlife development are following an established trend in southern Africa with strong justification for their actions. Those who are opposed to the introduction of buffalo do so on the grounds of a perceived threat to the viability of the cattle industry and, to a certain extent, the threat of diseases which affect other domestic livestock.

    If a hypothetical situation existed where a single landholder wished to introduce a disease-ridden wildlife species into a farming community which was pursuing a thriving industry based on domestic livestock, it would seem very reasonable to reject the proposition. If the proposal came from a large group of potential investors it would have to be treated with more weight.

    The Directorate of Veterinary Services point out that the decision whether or not to introduce buffalo to areas south of the "red line" veterinary control fence is not theirs but sits with the commercial farming community at large (Novall, pers.comm.10/10/02).

    Obviously it will require a critical mass of would-be wildlife investors to sway the issue - but the nature of the democratic institution which these potential investors have to convince is arguable. The further away from the locality of a proposed buffalo introduction any particular livestock farmer is, the lower is the real threat to his livelihood. In a large country such as Namibia it is questionable whether any potential stakeholder in the extreme south of the country should have a say over land use activities in the north.

    There are many intermediate veterinary control solutions (Foggin and Taylor 1996) which would maintain protection against livestock disease for southern stakeholders whilst allowing northern farmers to hold disease-free buffalo. This has been achieved elsewhere in the southern African region through introductions of disease-free buffalo, through modifications to veterinary cordon fences and through specific fencing to enclose those buffalo populations which are not disease-free.

    Recent data from Botswana (J. Broekhuis, pers.comm. 16/10/02) shows that the wildlife industry is generating some 4.5% of the gross national product from 40% of the national land - the cattle industry generates 3% from the remaining 60% of the land. Barnes (2001) shows that commercial cattle farming in Botswana (which enjoys the same beef export status as Namibia) is capital intensive and suffers low profitability. Without government subsidies the annual net cash income/ha is about US$0.6 and the financial rate of return is negative when set against an 8% discount rate of money. The addition of buffalo to wildlife systems cannot be said to be threatening highly profitable alternative land uses. On the contrary, it has been shown that wildlife land use is more viable than cattle production.

    Some experience with the introduction of buffalo to commercial farms in Zimbabwe is directly relevant here. The following is quoted directly from Foggin and Taylor (1996):
    "Whilst the establishment of FMD-free buffalo herds (478 buffalo on 21 commercial ranches in the veterinary 'clear zone') was highly innovative, it was clear that it would take a number of years before there were sufficient numbers of such buffalo to be of meaningful financial and economic benefit. Nevertheless, because of their value, there remains a great demand for buffalo on private land. The Department of Veterinary Services has been sympathetic towards the economic arguments put forward and, in consultation with the farmers concerned, drew up minimum fencing standards to hold free-ranging buffalo on approved properties in FMD control zones. The decision was also based on epidemiological evidence that the airborne spread of FMD virus has never been demonstrated in southern Africa. Whilst presently limited [more than 1,000 buffalo which are not disease-free now exist on private land in FMD control zones on arid terrain similar to that of northern Namibia], this number of buffalo can be expected to increase... With the growth of the economic importance of wildlife production as a form of land use, veterinarians have recognised the demand to accommodate the needs of the wildlife sector. This has been strengthened by the declining viability of cattle production and the prevalence of drought over the last decade. The need to re-examine land use in non-arable marginal land and the adoption of imaginative approaches to both animal production and disease control is emphasized. This is true for both commercial farm land and communal areas where wildlife is now making an important contribution to rural development."

    Morkel (1988) identified suitable sites to which FMD-free buffalo might be introduced in the commercial farming sector and considered the buffalo from the Waterberg Plateau as suitable animals to introduce. He also proposed the necessary veterinary precautions which would need be attached to the introduction.

    Some Facts on Buffalo
    Buffalo are the heaviest species within the Antelope family (Bovidae) with males achieving a body weight of up to 800kg and females up to 750kg (Smithers 1983). Taylor (1985, p355) compared asymptotic body weights for four different buffalo populations in Africa and found that they varied little from 700kg for males and 500kg for females. Coe, Cumming and Philipson (1976) used 450kg as the mean individual weight for the average animal in a buffalo population. Typical shoulder heights are 155cm for adult males and 145cm for adult females. The weight of a buffalo calf at birth is about 40kg and males achieve their full adult weight after about 7 years and females after about 5 years.

    Apart from their horn shape, the bodily form of buffalo resembles that of cattle. The front hooves are significantly larger than the hind hooves presumably because of the additional weight in the massive forequarters, head and neck. Adult male buffalo are black and females, subadults and juveniles all show a tinge of reddish-brown colouring.

    Buffalo are a key animal in the international sport hunting industry and are perhaps the most sought after amongst the "Big Five" species. Buffalo bulls have a reputation for being extremely dangerous, particularly when wounded.

    Buffalo tend to form large herds in the wet season when food is abundant and separate into small herds when food is scarce in the dry season.

    Sinclair (1974a) found that buffalo in the Serengeti showed no habitat preferences in the wet season - all habitats are equally suitable when food is plentiful.

    Taylor (1985) observed that when the large herds at Matusadona dispersed inland in the wet season, bachelor male groups remained on the lakeshore and were thus able to occupy the most favourable habitats the year round. Females, on the other hand, are forced to travel further within their home range in search of food because of the nutritional burden placed on them by nurturing calves and moving in large herds.

    Sinclair (1974c) found that the amount of time which buffalo spent on feeding remained fairly constant throughout the year and, during the wet season, there was no pattern of daily activity cycles.

    In the dry season daily cycles of activity became more pronounced: buffalo spent little time grazing in the hottest part of the day and devoted longer periods to ruminating when food quality was poorer.

    Much of this behaviour demonstrates adaptations aimed at reducing energy expenditure when food is limiting.

    Buffalo are selective grazers in the wet season but this behaviour creates difficulties for them in the dry season when little is left of their preferred species.

    Buffalo appear to waste little energy in competing for territory. Although Taylor (1985) found non-overlapping home ranges amongst large buffalo herds, the numerous observations of long distance buffalo movements suggest that territoriality is secondary when it comes to securing bulk food resources. The best strategy for buffalo may not be to compete for territory but to use resources as fast as possible when they are abundant.

    Instances of intra-specific aggression are observed amongst buffalo males often resulting in animals being expelled from herds. However, male mortality is no worse than female mortality and Sinclair (1974b) concluded that social stress did not appear to cause mortality directly.

    Since food shortages affected all age groups of both sexes equally, mortality could not have been socially induced. Undernutrition is a limiting factor for Buffalo rather than any social factors.

    Buffalo require a year-round supply of grass, adequate water and shade. They occur (or used to occur) in most of the savanna areas of Africa where annual rainfall exceeds 300mm and these requirements can be met. Most woodland types in the southern African region provide suitable habitat, including Mopane, Miombo (Brachystegia), Acacia, Teak (Baikiaea plurijuga), riparian fringes and vleis (or 'omurambas'). They may be unable to use large open grasslands if there is not adequate shade for resting in the hotter parts of the day or if water is insufficient. Buffalo normally drink twice daily and Pienaar (1969) estimated the daily consumption of water to be slightly more than 30 litres for an average animal.

    Buffalo are predominantly grazers. A list of grass species eaten by buffalo has been compiled from three major studies. A significant proportion of these species occur in Namibia, as indicated in the table. This is by no means a complete list and it is likely that many species which occur in Namibia and which are not on the list would also be acceptable food for buffalo.

    The utilisation and trampling of old stands of grass is important for other species in opening them up and making the new growth available to them.

    It is also well documented that buffalo include a small proportion of woody browse plants in their diet during the dry season. Pienaar (1969) records mopane, Grewia, Dichrostachys, Combretum, Ozoroa, Euclea, Diospyros, Securinega spp.

    Taylor (1985) studied the response of buffalo to the grass Panicum repens on the shores of Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe where buffalo numbers increased from some 800 animals in 1974 to over 3,000 (a density of 8 buffalo/km2) in 1983. All of the Panicum species recorded by researchers in southern Africa as preferred by buffalo (P. coloratum, P. maximum, P. repens) occur in a broad swathe across southern Africa and are present in the northern areas of Namibia.

    The southern savanna buffalo breeds seasonally from January to April in southern Africa with the majority of births occurring in January and February. In East Africa where a double rainy season occurs, the seasonal pattern of breeding is less marked. The gestation period is 330-346 days (Smithers 1983) indicating that in a typical savanna habitat most conceptions take place shortly after the grass sward biomass has peaked in the February of the previous year. Sinclair (1977) shows that buffalo populations are regulated by their food supply - which is ultimately regulated by rainfall and soil fertility.

    Although buffalo in captivity may live as long as 25 years, very few animals in the wild survive to an age of 20 years. Taylor (1985) found no specimens older than 18 years in his Matusadona study.

    Southern Savanna Buffalo Report

    View the entire report at southern-savanna-buffalo-report.pdf.

    Southern Savanna Buffalo Report

    View the entire report at southern-savanna-buffalo-report.pdf.

    Source: various including but not limited to the Republic of Namibia Ministry of Agriculture and the Forestry and Directorate of Veterinary Services

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