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Local Extinctions   

The hidden foundation of the Boer republic’s economy and the imperialist objectives of the exploitation of Africa’s natural resources saw the extermination of an estimated 20 million head of game between 1780 and 1880.

The last Bloubok (Hippotragus loncophaeus) was shot around 1779 in the Swellendam district. This antelope was the first historically recorded African mammal to become extinct. Seventy-three years later, the Quagga (Equus quagga) was last seen in the Orange Free State, the second mammal to become extinct at the hands of mankind in Africa's documented history.

"Herd of over eight hundred head of Quagga, Burchells Zebra, Black and Blue Wildebeest, Hartebeest and Blesbok on the southern plains of the Vaal river. Drawn from a Thomas Baines record of 1850" Source: London Illustrated News, 18 Jan 1868.

Jonathan Kingdon in his book Island Africa eloquently summarised the unique diversity and abundance of the fauna and flora found in the southern sub-continent and its demise at the hands of the colonists: "Aldo Leopold once remarked that one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives in a world of wounds". Nowhere is this more true, he added, than in the Cape: “there the landscape is so bloodied that little can now be seen of the once healthy body”.

He records that "de Jagt van de wilde beest (gnu-hunting) forms a favourite diversion of the Dutch colonies and occupies a very large proportion of the apparently valueless time of the trek-boors or nomad farmers who graze their overgrown flocks and herds on the verdant meadows… in a single heap I have seen so many as two or three hundred mouldering skulls and… from the numerous skeletons everywhere strewed the mortality among the species must be very great" (Cornwallis Harris, 1836).

The Black Wildebeest became rapidly extinct as a wild animal but a few land-owners, including some local mining interests, permitted some gnu to remain on their estates. Even so, by 1947 there were only three small herds in the entire Cape Province. Kingdon goes on to record that the extinction of the Bloubok has sometimes been cited as inevitable. This hippotragus species occupied a niche between the Sable and the Roan and over-hunting was the final push at an animal teetering on the brink of natural extinction.

Archaeology suggests that their range may have slowly contracted over many centuries of hunting and settlement by Khoisan people, whose population in the seventeenth century has been estimated at 200,000 south of the Orange River.

Three hundred years of catastrophic biodiversity loss. Broad mammal distributions found naturally in integral areas.

In spite of such a large human population the foothills and the lowlands of the Cape would have remained a relatively stable refuge for Bloubok and Bontebok, because the native Chochaqua (Khoisan) were primarily herders and traders.

The fate of both Chochoqua and the Bloubok was ultimately at the mercy of the accelerating trade between Europe and eastern Asia. The Bontebok was scarcely more fortunate with numbers down to 27 by 1837. A single family, the Van der Byls, set aside a part of their Nacht Wacht estate as a preserve which rescued them from extinction. It took one hundred years before a small national park was set up south of Swellendam. The Cape Mountain Zebra was already perceived to be rare and endangered in the 18th century, and an edict was issued banning its hunting in 1742. This was universally ignored and the last big massacre of about 100 animals took place at Craddock in 1910. In 1937 a farm of 1,712 hectares was bought as a national park to protect the single mare and five stallions that ran on it. These soon died and little further interest was taken until 1950 when farmer Henry Lombard donated the eleven animals that ran on his Waterval farm to the Mountain Zebra National Park that had long been empty of zebras.

With the growth of interest and addition of more farms and animals the population built up until there were 215 by 1980. Not even nominal efforts were made to protect the Cape Quagga, so common was it thought to be. In the 18th century various travellers reported vast herds of Quagga in the Karoo. Even Cornwallis Harris found ‘interminable’ herds south of the Vaal River, although he noticed they had disappeared from the rest of their range” Cornwallis Harris “could see that the fauna he called ‘a mine of treasure’ would eventually be exhausted [but he also] was unable … to escape the hedonistic opportunism of the times. The eighteen thirties had marked the beginning of several decades of laissez faire ‘free trade’ under a weak British administration in Cape Town. Trek wagons returned from the interior loaded with ivory and hides; in less than thirty years the Quaggas were extinct. A few animals found their way to Europe and it was in this way that the last geriatric Quagga died in the Amsterdam zoo in 1883”.

Picture taken in 1890 in a London ivory warehouse. Source: "White Gold"; D Wilson & P Ayerst; Heinemann, London 1976.

These are poignant reminders of what was perhaps once the world’s greatest theatre of sub continental diversity unfolding since the Paleocene era. Like in other parts of the world, European colonial expansion caused catastrophic biodiversity loss with large-scale transformation of landscapes.

These European-inflicted insular extinctions are said to be the ‘second phase’ of what began with the Neolithic wave of human invasion starting a couple of thousand years before.

It caused in South Africa the extinction of the quagga and bloubok and the local extinction in the Cape, Free State and parts of the Northwest of elephant, buffalo, white and black rhino, lion, eland, roan, sable and tsessebe. The latter named species' naturally occurring range has shrunk into the Eastern Lowveld region.

The occupation by humankind of the eastern savannahs has been the dominant factor in recent centuries in shaping the ecology of the region. The past hundred and fifty years have seen huge ecological transformations imposed on the local landscape.

Vast areas of montane grasslands have been converted to exotic forest plantation and hundreds of thousands of hectares of bush savannah have been rendered unsuitable for plains game and rare ungulate species by, from a sustainability perspective, inappropriate land use and management practices.

The effect of these transformations has been the local extinction of numerous mammal species and a concurrent loss in the overall genetic pool of locally adapted species.

Hemingway ruefully commented on Africa in the 1930’s that "Africa is a continent which ages quickly once we come to it". By then the first reserves had been declared in an effort to mitigate the habitat destruction.