Range degradation in Botswana: Myth or reality?

Range degradation in Botswana: Myth or reality?

Arguing the link with the livestock industry and ecosystem level degradation of the Kalahari.

Paper attempts to dispel some of the confusion surrounding the application of the range degradation concept in Botswana. It has three objectives. First, to present the current thinking of range ecologists vis-a-vis range degradation. Second, to dismiss recent arguments that range degradation in Botswana is insignificant. Third, to present an argument linking the livestock industry to ecosystem level degradation of the Kalahari.

Conclusions:

The concept of range degradation can be viewed from two angles: i) with respect to the output of a set of management-defined commodities, and ii) with respect to ecosystem processes. The argument that range degradation does not exist in Botswana was advanced primarily from the point of view of beef cattle production. It was based primarily on the fact that average carcass weights in 1966 and 1990 were the same. This in isolation would undermine the contention that the range has degraded over time. However, average stocking rate declined over the same period, animal health improved through better veterinary services, and access to markets was greatly facilitated over the 24 years from 1966 to 1990. Given the changes in those other variables, the slaughter and off-take rates could have no bearing on any shift in range condition. Therefore, from the standpoint of beef cattle production there is no support for the argument that Botswana's rangelands are not degraded.

Ecologically important pockets of fertility in the region are maintained by the concentration of wild ungulate excreta within topographic depressions. Since veterinary cordon fences have been linked to the decimation of the Kalahari's wild ungulates, Botswana's livestock industry is responsible for the virtual cessation of the transfer of nutrients from the uplands to these pockets of fertility. This rupture of a fundamental ecosystem process should be viewed as range degradation at the landscape level.

Paper does not prove that there is de facto degradation. Nonetheless, management decisions are invariably made in the absence of a complete and irrefutable body of knowledge. This is particularly true of ecosystem management. The assumption that all is well and nothing needs to be done about the ecological degradation of Botswana's rangelands has serious long-term consequences. Privatisation of the Kalahari would not reverse the ecologically unsustainable trend assailing the Central Kalahari. To restore the region's ecological integrity, it is necessary to re-establish migration routes and allow the wild ungulate populations to recover to numbers commensurate with their ecological role and economic utilisation. Only then will the Central Kalahari be able to play a significant role in ensuring that Botswana's development is sustainable.

[From the author]

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