Whenever this world got going with homo sapiens leaving footprints in the sand, life was very basic. Food, shelter, procreation. Simple yes, yet the procreation bit kind of got out of hand, putting pressure on the earth. More people, less space. More mouths, more food. Less space … Over the years homo sapiens became its own freight train out of control, wrecking this planet six-love. It took us some time to realise we’re creating our own doomsday.
Something had to be done and for many years we have been developing our understanding of what is good for the earth. Scientific research to the nth degree has been done by many, many clever people. We couldn’t do anything about the overpopulation of our fellow humans, so we’ve worked out that overpopulation of animals is killing the land. Overgrazing removes all the grass. Barren soil gets rushed off to the sea with every flash flood. Erosion follows. The world eventually will turn into one big desert. The encroachment is happening. Slowly but surely.
So logic says there are too many animals. Domestic or wild. Culling needs to kick in. Give the land time to rest. But the land cannot rest, can it? More and more people equates to more and more food needed.
What if we are wrong? What if actually do need more animals? Is it possible that an increase in livestock and wildlife can solve the problem? Logic is fighting this one.
Some years ago I was privileged to have visited the Holistic Management Centre near Victoria Falls and was stunned. Allan Savory is busy proving that we all need to make this paradigm shift. More is better. If done right, right?
His land is a wild piece of pristine Zimbabwean bush with the Big Five on it. A few years ago, however, it wasn’t like that. It offered only dried-out river beds and barren, overgrazed stubble and dust. Wildlife being wild and more hardened to severity still survived on this undernourishment. But all cattle has been removed at that stage. Logic again dictated that the wildlife also had to go. To rest the veld.
Yet, instead of culling wildlife, he looked at it differently. First of all, he realized that land being ‘rested’ by taking the animals off it, ends up with grass drying in the winter. It doesn’t go back to the soil, it oxidises and turns a grey-black colour and hard. Without any meaningful nutrients. The land doesn’t rest, it slowly dies.
What needed to happen was that the grass needed to be churned over and chopped to form a blanket on the ground. A blanket that will hold water and let it seep slowly into the earth to feed the roots. There are machines capable of doing that, but it uses al lot of diesel, increasing your carbon footprint. Then fertiliser would have to be added artificially. Not the most eco- and cost-friendly method.
There was another way, though. Cattle. Yes, he used cattle for conservation. What he did (and still do) was to allow as many cattle he could find to graze his land. At that moment he had 400 head, but wanted to go up to 1 000. The secret, however, was that the cattle was herded tightly by 12 herders and they never stayed long in any given area. His secret is still applying.
“The number one public enemy is the cow. But the number one tool that can save mankind is the cow. We need every cow we can get back out on the range. It is almost criminal to have them in feedlots which are inhumane, antisocial, and environmentally and economically unsound,” he said then and is still saying it today.
The herd takes up just over a hectare at any given time and stay on a stretch of about four to five hectares for three to four days. Just long enough to trample the earth that allows the grassroots to spread. Long before the cattle have eaten up all the grass, but left a blanket of grass covering the area, plus urine and dung as natural fertiliser, the herders move them on to the next piece. At night they put them in a mobile kraal to protect them from predators. As soon as they move into the next area, the kraal is moved as well.
When the rains come, the water doesn’t run away. It is absorbed by the ground cover and feeds the roots. The excess water goes underground and feeds the nearest river. Allan has a natural spring on his farm. That used to be the only source of water for the game.
Elephant paths used to lead towards it from all directions. We followed what used to be a dry river bed not too long ago over a kilometre and a half and there was still water in it. The elephant paths got overgrown in time, because although elephants might be thirsty, they are clever and not greedy; they have found so many more drinking places to choose from.
Due to the fact that the cattle are so tightly herded, it is easy to control and visitors to the farm will never know they are there. That means that there is no reason why other parks and game reserves can’t use this method to heal their land. But more importantly, it can be used by all the many cattle farmers in all the rural areas of Africa. They already know how to herd; they just need to be taught the secret of timing. Of not leaving them too long in any given space.
It’s not rocket science. Just a shift in thinking. And this is just a basic explanation of Allan’s holistic approach.
This meeting I had with this remarkable man was a decade ago, but Allan is still going at it. At first it all started on a single piece of land in Zimbabwe, but today the Savory Institute has 13 affiliations all over the world, from the USA to Spain, South America, Turkey, Britain and South Africa. A lot of devotees helping to graze the world back to health.
Allan is happy that people are listening. Allan is happy that the world wants him to teach him. But Allan is happiest when he roams his own piece of Africa near the Vic Falls in Zimbabwe. Barefoot. At the age of 83, many a young adventurer will have top step out to keep up. Boots and all.
To find out more, visit www.savoryinstitute.com