The Trekbokke of the Karoo

An extermination party shows off their success.

The Great Migrations of the Springbok Gazelle

The springbok, or springbuck, the small antelope which is South Africa’s national animal, and the name of the national rugby team, is an animal that has evolved in the dry Karoo region of the Cape.

Being the national emblem, tourists expect to see the animal all over the country, and staff at the Kruger National Park, Kwa Zulu-Natal parks and elsewhere, are often asked why they are not in those parks. The answer is simply that their natural distribution area is that of the dry Karoo and bordering areas. Driving through the Karoo on any given day, you will see many of these animals cropping away at the grasses and other plants that survive in that inhospitable climate. Mind you – they are behind game fences nowadays.

Three races of springbok are recognized: the Angola, the Kalahari and the Karoo. For breeding purposes, game farmers mixed and crossbred the three sub species, so what you see in the Karoo could be pure bred Karoo Springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis masupialis) or a cross between two or more of the subspecies.

Other commonly seen animals in the Karoo are several species of tortoise, the Cape Anteater (aardvark), the aardwolf, springhares (which is actually a rodent, and not a hare), meerkats and bat-eared foxes.

Springhare, meerkats and a bat-eared fox

During the 1800s, South Africa’s Karoo region had enormous migrations of springbok (I’m sticking to this spelling).

A huge herd of springbok in the 1800s.

These treks, which were the result of droughts and where food was available, were the biggest in the world, with literally millions of animals moving in one direction, over veld, farms and through towns in an unabated wave of animals, that, like locusts, ate everything before and under them.

An unknown artist’s depiction of the trekbokke in action in the mid 1800s.

The bison migration of North America, and the Wildebeest migration in East Africa of the same period were small compared to what was commonly known as the trekbokke phenomenon. Translation from the Afrikaans word: trek means to move / migrate / travel, bok is an antelope / buck. Today, East Africa’s Maasai Mara Wildebeest / gnu migration is the biggest terrestrial animal migration in the world. The springbok is very similar to the speedy plains gazelle of East Africa, the Thomsons Gazelle, the big differences being the shape of their horns and distribution area.

A pronking springbok.

The springbok stands 75cm tall at the shoulder, and weighs about 40kg, and both sexes have lyre shaped horns. It is a light fawn colour, with a lateral sides stripe of dark brown (seen as black) and below that, the belly is white. The chest is also white. It has a short black tail and an unusual dorsal crest which is only seen erect when the animal does its famous ‘pronking’, a stiff legged bounce. The springbok can clear the regular farm fences with ease, but occasionally will misjudge, and get tangled in the wires, leading to a slow and agonizing death of the animal.  It is not reliant on surface water, the moisture it gets from the vegetation it eats is sufficient, but they will drink if they come across a water source.

Typical Karoo landscape, with meerkats. Photo credit: unknown

Natural, but rare colour variations occur: black, white, and copper coloured springbok have now become big money, with these unusual animals with recessive genes being specifically bred for hunting purposes.

Black, white and copper coloured springbok

The springbok is still a favourite target for hunters, as their meat is not too ‘wild’ in taste. Venison served in restaurants is often springbok, and if you see ‘Springbok carpaccio’ on a menu, do order it; personally I think that Parma Ham has nothing on this delicacy. Springbok biltong (a dried meat delicacy, sort of like jerky, but much better) is readily available in shops right across the country too.

The springbok treks in the late 1800s were akin to swarms of locusts moving over the land, and as devastating to sheep farmers, who often gave up farming after their grazing land had been destroyed by the springbokke.

A successful springbok ‘hunt’ in the 1890s

Lawrence Green described the migration in his book ‘Karoo’ as: “At first there was a faint drumming coming from an enormous cloud of dust, with the front rank of the springbok, running faster than galloping horses. This front line was at least three miles long. Hare and jackal were racing past the hill and taking no notice of the humans. Snakes were out in the open, too, moving fast and seeking cover under the rocks on the hill. The first solid groups of buck swept past on both sides of the hill. After that the streams of springbok were continuous…..”

Hunting parties, really extermination parties, were organized, and hundreds of animals would be shot, and the meat would mostly be turned into biltong, and entire houses and yards would get festooned with the drying meat. Not on trees  – trees are few and far between in the dry Karoo, not much is above knee height.

An artists impression of 100s of 1000s of springbok from circa 1885.

The last springbok migration took place in 1896 – 1897, as their numbers had been successfully been reduced by the mass destruction done by the farmers in an effort to gain control of the land. The great herds have never recovered.

There is a little town in the Karoo, just off the N1, which most people drive by without a second thought. This is Richmond, Northern Cape (not to be confused with Richmond in Kwa Zulu-Natal). Richmond, NC, has been dubbed South Africa’s Booktown, because it hosts various book and writers’ festivals, and get-togethers, and therefore also has a wonderful collection of bookstores. Apart from that, the historic town has a number of museums, the Horse Museum being one which has a fascinating and interesting display of information on the Trekbokke, which in the old days, went right through that very area.

The main road in Richmond, NC, home to the Horse Museum.

If you find yourself in the area, do yourself a favour, take a break in Richmond, NC, have a cup of coffee and a beer, and spend a while in the Horse Museum.

For further reading, there was only ever one book published about the Trekbokke phenomenon, it’s a rarity, but a fascinating read: ‘The Migratory Springbucks of South Africa’ by S.C. Cronwright – Schreiner.

The galavanter on a trip through the Karoo.

By Kathryn Costello

I travel. I read. I get up to mischief. I write about what I have been up to. I also have fun writing down the stories that I told my daughter when she was little about a dolphin named Michaela. I am a tourism consultant. Owning and managing a successful guesthouse, working for tourism organizations and travelling has given me a lot of insight about what makes a tourism orientated business successful.

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