Black Death … in More Ways Than One

Black Death … in More Ways Than One

Growing up, I was blessed to live close enough to my grandparents that I could visit once or twice a week. I would jump out of the car, knock quickly and rapidly open the door running into the living room, past the picture window, coming to a stop on the ottoman pulled tight against my grandfather’s recliner. Sitting at Grampa’s side was my favorite place to be when I was a boy. Of the many reasons I liked being there was the round wicker basket under the arm of Grampa’s chair. It held all the magazines that he subscribed to: Outdoor Life, Field & Stream, the “wish book” (the latest Orvis catalogue), American Rifleman and American Hunter. We would read articles and share the adventures between the pages that took us to mysterious and beautiful places all over the world. The most intriguing and tantalizing stories were those that took us to Africa. Once there, it was the Cape buffalo that drew my attention. It was the “black death” that fueled my young dreams. One day … one day …

Syncerus caffer caffer needs no introduction. Iconic, admired, feared. The sobriquet “black death” is understood and well-earned. But fearsome charges and unreal vitality are only part of the story of the great beast’s lethality. It is, perhaps, more dangerous for the tiny, microbial beasts that hitch a ride on, or live in, its nearly indestructible body.

In the late 19th century, some of the biggest threats to the megafauna of Africa came in the smallest packages. One example is the great rinderpest epidemic of the 1890s. Introduced by infected Indian cattle brought to Eritrea by the Italian government to try to feed their troops fighting against Somalia, rinderpest left social upheaval, political unrest and death in its wake. When it made its way south to Natal and Zululand in 1896, it killed 90 percent of all African cattle. You can imagine that African governments today are extremely vigilant when it comes to the possibility of a repeat of that kind of epidemic.

Cape buffalo carry five deadly diseases that have wreaked havoc all over the continent. Corridor disease, brucellosis, foot-and-mouth disease, anthrax and bovine tuberculosis posed such a threat to the domestic cattle herds that most savanna buffalo and forest buffalo (Syncerus caffer nananus) had been killed off by the 1930s anywhere outside parks or other preserves. Rinderpest was also a threat. However, due to historic efforts, the disease was declared exterminated in 2011.

With a nearly mythic reputation for being almost impervious to a hunter’s bullet, buff are also immune to most of the microscopic monsters that live aboard. So, herds continued to survive in these government safe zones. But red lines were laid down to protect the interface between wild and domestic cattle. Buffalo (and other animals) that crossed the red line were destroyed.

To maintain genetic diversity, expand herds and avoid a possibly catastrophic disease event that could wipe out the buffalo, plans were laid to obtain, breed and reintroduce Cape buffalo that were disease-free.

In 1996, the South African National Parks Board initiated pilot programs to partner with private ranchers and game managers to produce disease-free buffalo to re-establish herds where they had disappeared and to create as varied and resilient a Cape buffalo gene pool as possible. According to researchers L. Laubscher and L. Hoffman in their 2012 overview of the program, “These pilot studies were designed to produce ‘disease-free’ calves from ‘diseased’ parent stock to provide official conservation organizations and the wildlife ranching industry with clean ‘disease-free’ buffalo from controlled areas that did not pose any disease risk.”

One of the ranches to participate in this ambitious work was run by Wayne Wagner, who runs farming and big game hunting operations headquartered in South Africa adjacent to Kruger National Park. Kruger is an immense and world-renowned reserve that covers over 7,000 square miles—360 miles from north to south and 40 miles from east to west. Portions of what is now the park were initially protected as early as 1898, becoming the first national park in South Africa in 1926. Wagner began guiding in 1992 and started his own hunting operation in 1998. Wagner’s buffalo breeding project was located near the western tip of the park. “We were one of the first breeding projects,” says Wagner.

Wagner relates that preservation and improvement of buffalo genetics was a key reason for initiating the program. But the area where breeding was allowed was limited and Cape buffalo distribution was primarily in the eastern parts of the country. So, landowners and other stake holders in portions of the country where buffalo were less abundant—and had even been wiped out—drove a huge demand for disease-free buffalo. This created a financially viable market for breeders like Wagner. In fact, in 2012, a record $1.38 million was paid for a buffalo cow and her bull calf. Then, in the same year, a Cape buffalo bull fetched a whooping $1.79 million.

Anyone who knows anything about Cape buffalo must wonder at how such an aggressive and downright ornery beast could ever be maintained in captivity. First, candidate ranches had to pass an extensive registration and certification process, ensuring that all buffalo could be housed safely while maintaining strict separation from other animals. This included double electrified fences. All the buffalo had to be tested regularly.

The Wagner operation consisted of three 10-acre areas attached to main breeding pens. About 45 cows were divided between the three areas and each of these smaller herds had a breeding bull. According to Wagner, the majority of work done with the buffalo occurred in the pen areas. When testing or other work had to be done, a veterinarian would be brought in to tranquilize the animal.

“When the cow was starting labor, we would put her in a pen and once the calf was born, we would remove it. This was done with lots of strategic planning as the cow was not tranquilized or willing to let the calf go.” After separating the calves from their mothers, the young would be hand raised under quarantine conditions and weaned at about seven months. Once they matured to the point that they could survive on their own, calves would be distributed to various purchasers.

At the time, hunting was not a primary driver of the restoration project. Today, however, “hunting now plays quite an important role for landowners wanting to have buffalo on their property as the buffalo trophy is very popular,” says Wagner.

By 2012, all the breeding projects were terminated. South African officials believed adequate numbers of disease-free buffalo had been reached to sustain and grow the buffalo herds, and the breeding operations were phased out over a two-year period. Before the phase out, there were 28 official “disease-free” breeding projects in South Africa.

However, buffalo breeding continues today even though the government has gotten out of the business. The production of disease-free buffalo has attracted some of South Africa’s wealthiest individuals as reported by media sources such as the country’s Sunday Times. In 2016, a Cape buffalo bull was valued at auction at $12.1 million. South Africa’s Farmer’s Weekly reported, “buffalo generate more profit per hectare than sheep, wheat and tourism combined.”

In summing up the breeding experience, Wagner explains, “Disease-free buffalo that were relocated from the projects are now normal [natural] breeding herds situated on different properties throughout South Africa in disease-free areas. It was a very interesting and educational experience as well as a lot of hard work, especially physically. It is really great to see disease free buffalo on other properties throughout South Africa.”

Wayne Wagner and the other ranchers, researchers and professional hunters who committed such financial and physical resources demonstrate the impact that concerned people can have to preserve and protect wildlife. Their work provides the possibility that, just like me 45 years ago, kids today who have a dream of one day pursuing the legendary “black death” will have the opportunity to make their dreams become reality.

About the Author
Alan Peterson is a filmmaker living in the paradise between the Wasatch Range and the Great Salt Lake. He enjoys shooting over his pudelpointer, Trigger, casting dries for cutthroats and kayaking for waterfowl. He knows it is all possible thanks to his very patient wife.