Climate change, over-population, pollution, plastic-filled seas. The threat to biodiversity, which ensures we have any future at all, is overwhelming. What can I do, I ask myself, to turn back the tide? Are my attempts at recycling, buying free range and organic food, signing Greenpeace petitions, boycotting products that contain palm oil and using public transport making any difference at all?
A seemingly righteous Facebook post helped me realize that, as a consumer, I am indeed needing to learn and do a lot more. I had just returned from a local weekend market and expressed my gratitude for the organic vegetables, sustainably-caught fish and ethically hunted kudu that I had bought. Bool Smuts, CEO of the conservation NGO Landmark Foundation, commented: “Would love to know about ethically hunted kudu.”
I meekly responded that I felt that eating kudu that had been hunted was better than eating cattle raised in feed lots. It is worth quoting Smuts’s response in full: “Most of the kudu hunts I know are brandy-soaked bakkie brigade thrill of the kill escapades and anything but ethical. Ethics dictate that consideration be given to the social structures of the animal groups, ecological reasoning and method of off-take. These all need to be accounted for. Usually the industry just assigns labels and cannot provide traceability or accountability of harvest…not least ethics.” I retreated with my tail between my legs and vowed to return to the market and interrogate the meat seller.
Admittedly, the most environmentally friendly thing to do would be to go completely vegan, but I do believe that eating according to one’s blood group does hold sway and my being O positive means that meat is good for me. I have even gone as far as asking my sister if I could kill one of her ducks. I thought I would feel exonerated from meat-eating guilt if I experienced killing an animal. Fortunately she gave the duck away before I could get my hands on it. I have always been a city dweller and my meat consumption has mostly been limited to lamb chops packaged in cellophane and styrofoam with not a drop of blood in sight.
The Landmark Foundation seemed a good place to start in my quest to to be a more ethical consumer. The Fair Game Wildlife Friendly Products brand is the outcome of their Shepherding Back Biodiversity project and provides “ethically sourced wildlife-friendly rangeland meats”. It is quite a mouthful for someone who sources their meat from supermarket shelves and a challenge to simply understand what this all really means.
My ignorance became embarrassingly obvious when Dayne de Wet delivered my lamb. I was sure that there had been a mix-up with the order as there were so many chops. I gingerly picked up the bloody bags and tried to identify the various parts, hesitantly anticipating dividing the meat into smaller plastic bags to fit into my refrigerator. Rosy-cheeked and cheerful, de Wet pointed out the leg, chops, shoulder chops and stewing meat. I asked him about how the lamb was slaughtered and he said that there are plans afoot to build an in-house butcher to minimize the stress caused by transporting the animals, but for the moment the livestock are taken to an abbatoir in Beaufort West. I felt somewhat better when he told me that at the abbatoir their sheep appeared much calmer than those from other farms.
An invitation to the media launch of Fair Game on the Kromelboog farm in the Great Karoo provided me with the opportunity to see first hand what bringing wildlife friendly rangeland meats to the table entails. En route, we spent a night at the Karoo National Park which is the largest ecosystem in South Africa. At the information centre, I travelled back in time to 1896 when the last springbok/trekbokke migration took place. What a beautiful sight it must have been to witness (from a safe vantage point) hundreds of thousands of springboks passing through the Karoo landscape. The migrations formed part of the ecosystem of the Karoo as the springboks deposited fresh manure to the churned soil. My reverie was interrupted when I read that Beaufort West residents fired at the enormous tide of springbok flowing through the streets from the comfort of their verandahs. The mass migrations came to an end as farmers moved further north in search of more grazing lands. Traditional grazing methods of moving stock were replaced with the fencing off of lands and livestock remaining in pastures with less supervision for longer periods of time. Over-grazing had a detrimental impact on the Karoo’s ecosystem. Farmers used gin traps (spring-loaded metal traps), poison bait and hunting to protect their livestock from predators, methods still practiced today.
Not long after we summited the DeJagers Pass, a sign that reads “Landmark Foundation, Predator-Friendly Farm” signalled the turning to the Kromelboog farm, the pilot site for the Shepherding Back Bidoversity project. A group of guests had gathered around a leopard sculpture on the verandah of the Little England homestead. Commissioned by the Landmark Foundation, the sculpture is made out of 220 gin graps that were removed from 12 commercial livestock farms in the Eastern Cape. We witnessed the devastation caused by these traps in a slideshow presentation the following morning. Harrowing images of different types of wildlife with limbs severed by the spring-loaded metal traps were a devastating testament to the destructive impact these traps have on biodiversity. Smuts commented on the inter-relatedness of the food chain and the cascading effect both up and down if you disrupt it. Just at the point of giving up trying to convince commercial farmers to change their ways, the Landmark Foundation turned their attention to reducing human wildflife conflict in production landscapes. Smuts believes that we are not dealing with biology, ethics or finances, but culture. “The problem is with cultural behaviour and a colonial attitude to the wild,” he said.
Establishing a system of non-lethal predator control that benefitted both farmers and the land required experimentation. Anti-bite livestock collars, dogs and spitting alpacas were found to be poor substitutes for human shepherding. Ultimately, they determined that a return to farming methods from the past was the best solution. Shepherds take the livestock out during the day to graze in carefully-selected pastures and bring them back to temporary kraals comprised of electrified wires that keep the livestock from escaping. Lights and motion detectors pick up any approaching predators and warn the shepherds who sleep in small caravans near the kraals. Once the chosen site for the kraal has been optimally grazed, the kraal is packed up and moved to another site. Since its inception three years ago, no livestock has been lost to predators. One pasture at a time, the Kromelboog farm is reinstating a natural migration cycle which boosts the ecology and biodiversity of the land.
That afternoon, Dr. Jeannine McManus, a predator expert and Fair Game livestock manager, took us on a guided walk. She checked on one of the cameras posted around the farm to observe wildlife. The diversity of wildlife captured on these cameras including ant-eaters, jackal, caracal, kudu, aardwolf and bustards suggests that they are achieving their aim to “restore the ecological intergrity of their farms”. In the midday heat, no animals were to be found, but there were traces of wildlife. We crossed a dry riverbed where two weeks before the spoor of a lion that escaped from the Karoo National Park were found. The lion had been roaming around the area for two months. A leopard had also recently been spotted on the farm.
When we got back to the homestead, Jonathan Taylor, a photographer who is documenting the Kromelboog farm project, was preparing a fire for a spit braai. A lamb carcass lay wrapped in a plastic sheep in the back of a bakkie. I was more fascinated than disturbed as Taylor and a guest, Mauro Zezza, cracked open the carcass and used wire ties to attach it to an iron cross that would later be suspended above the hot coals in true Patagonian Lamb al Asador barbecue style. This method brings new meaning to the idea of slow cooking. And dediction. Zezza and Taylor fashioned a basting brush out of strips of rosemary that were dipped in a water, lemon and garlic mixture and used to keep the meat moist over the next six hours.
The vastness of the 22 000 hectare Kromelboog farm became apparent as we drove to meet the shepherds bringing the livestock back to the kraal. From a distance, the 2,100 sheep and 350 cows were tiny specks in the arid Karoo landscape. Two small caravans where the shepherds sleep marked the kraal site. John Zolile Nyilika, the training manager on the farm, demonstrated the concept of using livestock to oxidate the grasses whilst the herd of sheep and cattle approached, backlit by the setting sun. He removed the dry grass from the top of a tuft of grass and explained how the sheep grazing allow the new shoots growing underneath to be exposed to sunlight and oxygen, boosting their growth. I marvelled at the shepherds skills as they effortlessly separated the cattle from the sheep and drove them into a separate kraal. One of the herders, Dixon Ncube, is in his 21st year of stock management. He has an extensive knowledge of animal husbandry and the local ecology. “We are looking after what is under the ground and above the ground,” he told me.
After a long drive back to the farmstead, we gathered around the sizzling lamb carcass under an almost full moon. I was reflective more than talkative, struck by the huge amount of work, skill and care that had produced our forthcoming feast. Fair Game can vouch for not a single loss of livestock to carnivores and no wild animals being harmed in the production of their meat. Dr. McManus had tears in her eyes as she spoke about the dedication of the herders and how much she has learnt from them. “There is a lot of heart amongst the team. It is an honour to work with them,” she said.
A recent article published by the World Economic Forum cites a study published in Nature magazine that concludes that we could cut greenhouse emissions in half by 2050 if we all switched to a flexitarian diet. This allows for one portion of red meat once a week. For those of us who do still choose to eat meat, maybe we should consider the once a week approach and make it a special occasion which honours the animal and the care that has gone into bringing our meat to the table without having a negative impact on the ecosystem from whence it comes. Considering that the global food system is a major contributor to climate change, we can make a difference by making informed choices about what we eat. Our future depends on it.
Words and photography by Alexia Beckerling