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Echoes of the Past

Before the advent of the European settlers in the last two centuries the plains of the present day Free State was teeming with large herds of antelopes. Human habitation was confined to pockets close to rivers and water sources, with the plains mostly void of permanent human habitation. The legacy of our past is that a massive slaughter of animals has taken place within the first fifty years of settlement. The scale of this event is only paralleled by the slaughter of the bison on the North American continent. Where in today's Free State cultivated farmlands stand for hundreds of kilometres, it is difficult to conceive the large herds of game numbering millions of animals that existed only two centuries ago.


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The historical records of only one commercial firm in Kroonstad shows that during only a few months of 1855 they exported over 55,000 game hides. The sad fact is that for the small price that a hide fetched in 1855, the entire legacy of Africa has been lost. Today farmers are adopting conservation and most farms have land set aside for the original species that once roamed these plains freely. An increasing number of farms have been totally converted to game and wildlife and although in biological terms they represent only pockets of what this habitat looked like, at least some species and habitats are being preserved. The Zoutspruit game camp offers a fascinating view of what this area must have looked like only a few centuries ago.

Pockets of Conservation

Today many farms have set aside areas for conservation purposes. The conservation is driven increasingly by a profit motive which has both a positive and a negative side. The positives are that our heritage is being conserved and that since it is commercially viable, the conservation efforts are self sustaining and viable over the long term.

The negatives are that at best only pockets of conservation exist between extensively farmed tracts of lands where excessive agricultural cultivation together with extensive usage of synthetic fertilizers, insecticides and the planting of genetically modified crops are applied. Emphasis is given to the larger antelope species with a commercial value at the expense of the other 99% of species consisting of smaller mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and the diversity of plant and insect species that have made up this eco-system in the past. In fact very little data is available anywhere on what species should really make up the bio-sphere of the Free-State plains and in what proportions they should exist. All the large (and often even the small) predators has been eliminated from the system, leaving only man as the ultimate predator.

Even if smaller species are re-introduced in an area, they would exist as isolated populations on ecological islands surrounded by vast and barren tracts of agricultural land. For example it is inconceivable that a chameleon will be able to cross the wasteland of a ploughed maize field for a distance of five kilometres in over 30 degrees centigrade heat with absolutely no shelter, food, vegetation or water in its journey towards the next 'island' of conservation. This will ultimately lead to a dramatic loss of genetic diversity in most species and it does not create viable populations that have a good long-term chance of survival. Such are the sad realities of our modern age

 

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