Looked at one way it’s a game reserve. In another, it’s a vast cattle ranch. Or prime rangeland. Whichever way one looks at it, Shangani Holistic, in the Zimbabwe midlands, lives up to its name, fusing all the elements of its ecosystem so that each flourishes to the benefit of the others.
Director Max Makuvise refers to the enterprise as a “multispecies farming unit.” His colleague, Ranga Huruba, who is Head of Operations, keeps his savvy eye on the health of the savanna landscape on whose bounty all the various species depend. Not least of those who thrive in this environment are the people, who in the south, live within Shangani’s boundaries, and in the north, on its outskirts.
These communities are inextricably linked to the history of the area, where, in 1890, Lobengula’s amaNdebele warriors launched the first attempt to repel British troops which had crossed the Shangani River, which skirts the ranch in the east. The “Battle of Bonko” ended in defeat, and settlers took over land occupied by Shona, Kalanga, Rozwe and Ndebele peoples.
Care of the land encompasses not just the animals, rivers, grasses and trees. It also includes healing the social fabric that has been rent in different ways by colonialism and contemporary conflict. Land ownership and usage continue to be a thorny issue, says Makuvise, but Shangani, in recognising the role of people and their history with the landcape, dedicate considerable attention to engaging, interacting, training and employing those whose lives are woven into this area.
About 1.5 hours’ drive from Bulawayo, the ranch is owned by the Oppenheimer family, and is situated in a gently undulating landscape of open savanna consisting mostly of grassed bushland with patches of Miombo woodland. Spread over 65 000 hectares, it is the largest cattle farming operation in Zimbabwe. At the moment there are 7 700 head of cattle, of which between 40% and 50% are Nguni.
Ultimately, says Makuvise, the entire herd will be Nguni, in keeping with Shangani’s overarching management philosophy of promoting indigenous breeds.
“We used to have European breeds,” he says, “but they were big framed, and not efficient.”
Peter Makumbe, Shangani Holistic’s Research Manager, says the small-framed Nguni breeds have several advantages, including disease, parasite and tick resistance, an extreme temperature tolerance, they are adapted to drought and can browse during the dry season when the grass is moribund, and they reach an earlier reproductive maturity.
Cows, in this scheme, are not just lawnmowers, whose purpose is to convert grass into energy, but also “upkeepers of the environment”. He notes further that methane emissions matter, and farming has to consider its impact on global warming, “so we look at a breed’s ability to graze and browse and be efficient.”
Tis efficiency means “there is plenty of wasted grass.”
“We’ve got more land than animals,” says Makuvise, “and the cattle don’t interfere with the wildlife.”
Which means that, in time, even though Shangani has the biggest cattle herd in the country, it will grow to 14 000 head, with holistic management allowing for growth in numbers that conventional grazing does not allow for.
The wildlife that shares in the bounty of Shangani is multitudinous. There are large carnivores, including dozens of leopard, whose presence obviously has to be reckoned with due to the likelihood of predation on calves. There are about 2 500 impala, says Makuvise, between 2 000 and 2 500 zebra, and then giraffe, kudu, reedback, water buck… the list goes on. These are numbers to boast about, but Huruba brings the headiness back down to earth by emphasising that “everything starts with the soil, and a healthy soil is a healthy system.
This balance of factors was not achieved overnight. Makuvise says they adopted the Allan Savory approach to planned grazing. At the time the approach rested on the principle that intensive livestock grazing, as long as it moved along grasslands with some rapidity, could mimic the movement and impact of wild herds, and improve both meat yield and soil health through compacting grass. This created mulch, disrupting the soil, fertilising it and ultimately stimulating plant growth. The mantra was, in short, “big herds good”, and that they could be good for the environment, food production and climate change.
But, says Makuvise, “you can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach. We have different veld, a different climate,” and the Savory method could not be applied rigidly, and now, after some trial and error, “We are developing our own approach that can be exported and implemented within other relevant contexts.”
They started off with a wholesale departure from a paddocking system with a massive removal of internal fences. “Holistic planned grazing is a system in its own right,” he says. “Cattle are rotated across grazing blocks. They are herded in the day, and they come back to camp at night.”
Shangani has incorporated indigenous knowledge systems into its management practice. Moving from area to area is one, to follow the nutrition but also to move away from predators and pests. They have also abandoned boma sheeting coralling and started using “Maasai organic kraals” made from cut bush and trees which are rebuilt every two to three months.
Success is measured in calf losses. Previously, “we’d lose an animal a day” to predation. Apart from reduced predation, Makumbe says indigenous kraaling has the advantage of controlling bush encroachment and putting the bush to good use, and it is environmentally friendly in not using synthetic materials.
Now they lose about one a month, and, as a direct result of this kraaling method, predators have turned their attention to eating impala and bushpig instead. Critically important, in addition to these methods, is the human element. Close attention is paid to both and individual animals and the herd as a whole by a dedicated herder.
“We need this connection between herder and animal,” says Makuvise.
“The benefit is early disease detection, because we know individual animals and their needs.”
Huruba emphasises that they take into account the Five Freedoms of cattle: freedom from thirst, hunger, discomfort, disease and the freedom to express normal behaviour. Low stress handling is part of the strategy, but disease control does necessitate dipping, for example, to reduce tick-borne diseases.
Preventing other diseases, like foot-and-mouth, requires strict control of stray animals, so that no bovine-to-bovine transmission can take place, and quarantining any new animals before introduction to the the cattle herd. To incorporate local disease control knowledge, “ethnovets”, who are familiar with indigenous plant medicines, are starting to be used, but it is too early to talk of results of their efforts.
Changing practices does, however, create new challenges. For example, bush encroachment, which used to be controlled through high stocking, requires a multi-pronged approach. This is Huruba’s domain.
“A cattle farmer is a grass farmer,” he says.
“You need the best grass,” but bush encroachment makes this tricky and has escalated partly due to previous conventional management practice, but also due to climate change.
“We can’t convert the whole ranch back to grassland,” he says.
“It requires an adaptive management mentality. So we are now moving away from continuous grazing, to right time grazing.” It’s not only about the cattle, however, and this is an indication of how much the ecosystem is incorporated into management decisions, compared to early years.”
The questions that arise are “What is the objective for this (grazing) block? How do I use the cattle? What takes priority here: wildlife or cattle? In some areas, to clear the browse line, we cut, and use goats to browse off the coppicing. We also have kudu and other species that browse,” says Huruba.
The goats number about 45 now, but the objective is to have a herd of 500. This is because apart from landscape control and conservation, they are also a source of protein for staff, instead of the cattle, which curently are part of their diet. And, again, local is the mantra, and the goats are indigenous Matabele animals, so “no Boer goats.”
There are other challenges. Shangani Holistic is not an island, and so the possibility of wildlife conflict must be managed. There is, for example, the seasonal migration of elephants from the north, for whom a corridor is kept open in the interests of wildlife conservation. This puts them in conflict with small-scale farmers in the area, whose crops are vulnerable.
Makumbe is interested in developing a “hotspot” model of human-wildlife interaction, noting “We have not yet developed a model to mitigate conflict. But it is a priority, and we prefer, in our context, to speak of ‘interaction,’ not conflict.” He says the elephant numbers are not high enough to hit damage levels, or cause ‘habitat modification’. But elephants are not the only thing to be on guard about. “We have problems with hyena and leopards, especially regarding the calves,” he says.
As for poachers, they are largely kept in check by a security unit which patrols the ranch.
The cattle operation is economically successful, and the ecosystem conservation objectives are also considered a success. Makuvise says this is based on close monitoring. Historical data, if it exists, is used as a benchmark. They have intensified veld monitoring, mindful not just of cattle nutrition but also for its role in carbon sequestration in the battle against climate change. Indicator species are monitored at five-yearly intervals, and competition between species is monitored to ensure balance is maintained.
Makumbe notes that an indicator of the health of the environment is the fact that “our ranch has a healthy population of white backed vultures, and nesting Cape Griffon vultures, which is very unusual.”
For Makuvise, their presence is a clear indication that “we are doing something right.”
The innovations in holistic management at Shangani have been met with enthusiasm from Dr Duncan MacFadyen, Head of Research and Conservation at Oppenheimer Generations, a philanthropic initiative of the Oppenheimer family dedicated to creating sustainable futures for people and the environment.
“The Shangani holistic model is hugely exciting,” said MacFadyen, “with the integration of herded cattle with free ranging wildlife, which could be the perfect sustainability model for Africa, addresses the triple bottom line: environment, community and economics. In Africa, there is an increasing demand on land, often resulting on negative impacts on the environment. The Shangani holistic model provides the perfect opportunity for communities and wildlife to thrive, while been financially sustainable. This could be the win-win we have been looking for,” he continued.
Duncan looks forward to a day when Shangani can boast of carbon-neutral beef production, retailing the venison from the ranch, and communities pursuing sustainable livelihoods in equilibrium with bountiful nature.
By Yves Vanderhaeghen