Kalahari Travel Journal | Fences of Death

Domestic goats in the Kalahari. Leigh KempDomestic goats in the Kalahari
Nowhere in Africa has the debate between development and conservation been so extreme as in Botswana with the erection of veterinary fences to prevent the spread of animal borne diseases.

The other Great Migration

There was a time when 500 000 wildebeest moved across the sands of the Kalahari in Botswana to graze on the nutritious grasses in the valleys of the Central Kalahari. This migration was second in sheer numbers only to the Great Migration of the Serengeti Ecosystem in East Africa. But today the numbers of wildebeest have dropped dramatically but stabilized at 10% of the original population, most of which now reside in the protected areas of Botswana.At first this sounds like a catastrophe of imaginable proportions, and to many people it still is, but a background into the reasons for the drop in numbers is necessary before comment is made.On route into the Central from Maun the visitor will come into contact with a strong-looking double lined cable fence that runs as far as the eye can see in a straight line in one direction, be it east to west or north to south. These fences were erected in the 1970's and 1980's by the government of Botswana to prevent wildlife coming into contact with domestic herds as a means of preventing the spread of foot and mouth disease.

Choices for a developing nation

In the 1960's, when Botswana came to independence, it was considered one of the poorest countries in the world, a dustbowl in a desert, but what they did have was a strong beef farming heritage. In fact beef was by far Botswana's largest foreign income produce. This was all before the world's largest diamond deposits were discovered in the desert.Botswana sold its beef to the European Union which in turn stipulated that the country had to control the spread of diseases such as foot and mouth. And so the fences were erected all over the country where wildlife was present. The fence on the northern boundary of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve was erected when the migratory wildebeest were in the reserve itself, and when the area dried up they migrated north as usual where they met the new fence.

The original fence of death

It is said that more than 250 000 wildebeest died in the initial pile up at the fence, and the title of fence of death was imposed on this particular section. Of those that managed to find their way out many thousands were killed by villagers and dogs as they searched for water in their weakened state.There is no sign of the tragedy today but the voices of people can still be heard in heated debate as to the necessity of the fences. Botswana today is one of the success stories of Africa, due in no small part to the diamond industry and to a lesser extent tourism and beef farming, but the naysayers can still be heard bemoaning the fences.Despite the loss of the wildebeest migration the Central Kalahari experience is still one of the most rewarding safaris in Africa, providing an insight into unique animals and interesting adaptations.by Leigh Kemp
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