Hakai Magazine

eland grazing in South Africa
By bringing grazing eland back, conservationists are helping to restore the plant diversity in South Africa’s Cape Floral Region. Photo courtesy of Petro Botha

Can Grazing Antelope Regenerate South Africa’s Coastal Vegetation?

A unique conservation project is using eland to help beat back invasive plants.

Authored by

by Jaco Prinsloo

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On July 29, 2020, five eland antelope ambled through the gates of a vineyard on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa. They didn’t come for the wine, but rather to graze. Their arrival at the Vergelegen Wine Estate marked the start of the second phase of a unique urban conservation initiative called the Gantouw Project—and the first time in centuries that these antelope, the largest in the world, have been seen in the Hottentots Holland mountains.

The Gantouw Project, launched in October 2015 under the auspices of the Cape Town Environmental Education Trust, aims to restore severely degraded and endangered vegetation by letting the voracious eland munch grasses and shrubs, putting the ecosystem back in its natural balance. The animals were first deployed in an area of Cape Town called the Cape Flats—a heavily urbanized, densely populated coastal region. Now they have been moved to the mountains.

The new phase of the project marks a homecoming of sorts for these animals. The word gantouw translates from the local Khoi language to “way of the eland,” and describes an ancient migratory route for both people and animals between the Cape Flats and the mountains to its north.

The southwest tip of South Africa is home to the Cape Floral Region, a biodiversity hotspot recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its diversity, density, and quantity of endemic species. It hosts more than 9,000 plant species and 21 distinguishable types of vegetation or plant communities, most of which have become degraded because of farming, urban development, and changes to natural wildfire patterns.

One of these vegetation types—Cape Flats Dune Strandveld—covers patches of the marshy coastal dunes that lie within Cape Town’s city limits. Its succulent shrubs, herbs, and grasses include 26 species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. Only 19 percent of the Strandveld vegetation remains in relatively good condition, with just seven percent currently protected in reserves.

The Strandveld vegetation evolved during a time when large herbivores, including eland, hippos, and rhinos, roamed this landscape and grazed on the plants, says Dalton Gibbs, a biodiversity manager for the City of Cape Town and founder of the Gantouw Project. Those animals have been driven out by European settlers since the 17th century; without their consistent grazing, he says, “plants with more prolific growth patterns just take over and close the gaps in the understory.”

So Gibbs decided to bring some eland back. “Eland are ideally suited to this,” says project manager Petro Botha. “They have a calm, affectionate demeanor, surprisingly similar to pets.”

Gibbs’s team hand-reared five eland taken from a nearby reserve at the age of four to six months, so they would become used to people from an early age. To keep people and the animals safe, the eland were allowed to graze only in reserves with border fences at least 2.5 meters high. Conservation interns from the city reserves helped with the daily routines of feeding, cleaning, training, guiding, and bonding with the animals. The animals were transported in trailers, often through gridlocked traffic, from one grazing site to another in the fragmented urban landscape.

The project has faced obstacles, says Botha. Some city officials and conservationists have been skeptical, she says, given the cost of the fences and the difficulty of shepherding large animals through an urban environment. Right when the project was finally ready to introduce the eland to the Strandveld, the Western Cape province was hit by a drought that jeopardized the animals’ welfare. “The drought threatened to sink Gantouw before it started,” says Botha, but the volunteers managed to keep the animals hydrated even while the city was under heavy water restrictions.

Gibbs says the project has been successful in finding the right amount of grazing to restore the health of the ecosystem. “Once we started seeing, even in small areas, plants returning that weren’t there before, I knew we got the balance right,” says Gibbs.

Once biodiversity began noticeably returning to the Cape Flats, says Botha, the eland were moved to help conserve Renosterveld, a similarly degraded Cape Floral Kingdom vegetation type found in the mountains and around the Vergelegen vineyard.

The Gantouw Project is continuing to monitor conditions over the Cape Flats, using drone photography and spectral imaging to check on the number and type of species growing in the area. Botha is now completing a doctoral thesis that aims to describe the impact of the animals’ grazing.

Eugene Moll, an ecosystems expert at the University of the Western Cape who isn’t involved with the project, agrees that it has been good for the area. “The reintroduction of eland is the safest, most ecologically sound way of regenerating one of our most threatened natural landscapes,” he says.