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Breaking down barriers: Cattle and wildlife compete in Southern Africa

  • Thousands of kilometers of fencing designed to keep cattle away from disease-carrying wildlife such as buffalo now cover many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
  • These disease-control fences have a devastating impact on wildlife by blocking migration routes and isolating populations.
  • Global food safety rules that require that beef be produced in areas free of disease such as foot-and-mouth disease have historically made it difficult for regions with wildlife populations to trade in beef.
  • Southern African nations are exploring a new approach to trade that may reduce the reliance on fences, in the process also allowing key migration routes to be restored.

The Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA) is an audacious project that envisions a vast space where migrating species can cross international borders following their ancient seasonal paths. But there’s a problem.

“One of the key barriers to connected landscapes in many parts of Southern Africa are disease control fences,” says Steve Osofsky, a professor of wildlife health and health policy at Cornell University.

An area north of the Okavango Delta panhandle in northwest Botswana illustrates the problem. Here, around 18,000 elephants are hemmed into a roughly triangular pocket of some 8,700 square kilometers (3,360 square miles), isolated from the rest of KAZA to the north and east by disease-control fences, and the waters of the Okavango River and villages to the south and west. The area is also home to 13 villages with a population of more than 16,000 people enclosed alongside the elephants, creating a pressure cooker for human-wildlife conflict.

“When you’ve got that many elephants bottled up, that’s one of the most conflict intense areas of the country,” Osofsky says.

Mod Masedi, the son of the chief of Habu village in the southern part of the delta, says the conflict has been exacerbated by climate change, with elephants destroying boreholes and water pumps in search of water.

“I think it’s getting worse, we haven’t had rain the whole of last year, the whole of the delta is dried up,” he says. “We can’t blame [the elephants], they are also looking for water.”

The disease-control fences also prevent elephants and other migratory species from accessing the different habitats they historically used at different times of the year. Eyewitnesses have described thousands of animals helplessly trapped mid-migration, cut off from the food and water they had traveled so far to reach.

“It’s pretty well documented that hundreds of thousands if not millions of wild animals have died since those fences started to go up in the late 1950s,” Osofsky says.

Disease-control fences are part of an ingrained orthodoxy of the livestock trade that has dominated since the colonial era. Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), an infectious virus that affects cloven-hooved animals, is one of the main reasons for disease control fences. The disease is not dangerous to humans but can be fatal in cattle, producing a high fever and sores on the hooves and mouth. An outbreak in the UK in 2001 led to more than 6 million cattle and sheep being culled at an estimated cost of 8 billion pounds ($11.6 billion).

The thousands of kilometers of disease-control fences that now segment much of Southern Africa are designed to separate livestock from wildlife, particularly the Cape or African buffalo (Syncerus caffer).

Cape buffalo, Kasane, Botswana. Image by Federico Moroni via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

“The African buffalo is the only wildlife species in the world we know that naturally carries FMD virus,” Osofsky says. “The only way to eradicate the virus in a country with buffalo is to kill all the buffalo which would be a tragedy.”

When properly maintained and coupled with a vaccination program, disease-control fences can create largely wildlife-free zones that are FMD–free, such as in southern Botswana, where the country’s commercial cattle operations are concentrated. These FMD-free zones are able to export their beef around the world and access high-value markets — so long as they remain FMD-free.

The livestock sector in wildlife regions like the northern Botswanan section of KAZA differs from the large, profitable commercial herds found in southern Botswana. Frequent FMD outbreaks in these regions have historically disrupted trade for long periods of time.

“The worst scenario was in 2007 when we had the first outbreak in the quarantine,” Masedi says. “After that people never sold their cattle for seven years. That means people lost income, their livelihoods, and also because of overpopulation of cattle because of not selling we ended up with a lot of environmental degradation.”

Under these conditions, the cattle industry in the Ngamiland region of northern Botswana has stagnated for many years.

“FMD has actually completely eroded the social and economic status of Ngamiland people,” Masedi says. “At some point Ngamiland used to be one of the richest areas [but] because of the FMD we have not been able to access the markets and as such we ended up with now becoming the second poorest in Botswana.”

In countries like Botswana, cattle are culturally important as status symbols, so disease control fences are still a politically sensitive issue in the north of the country.

But the fences designed to protect the ailing livestock sector are paradoxically suffocating the region’s main economic potential: nature-based tourism. In Botswana, travel and tourism now account for 13.4 percent of GDP, second only to the diamond trade, with wildlife being Botswana’s greatest tourism asset. By contrast, the agricultural sector, which includes arable crops, fishing and forestry as well as livestock, has fallen from 44 percent of GDP in 1968 to just 2 percent of GDP in 2018.

Communities living alongside wildlife in Southern Africa are also often the poorest, with limited job opportunities. Climate change is likely to exacerbate the already challenging agricultural environment. Osofsky says he believes that ecotourism is an essential part of the diversified income streams that communities living in KAZA will need to be sustainable, so finding a way for livestock and wildlife to co-exist is imperative to KAZA’s success.

The Setata Fence was built in 1995 to prevent disease migrating from wild animals to domestic cattle. Because of its impact on migrating wildlife, it was taken down in 2004, only to be rebuilt in 2008. Image by Terry Feuerborn via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Commodity-based trade

The governments of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) nations, with the support of the KAZA Secretariat, have been exploring a different approach to protecting the beef trade.

Osofsky began his search for a new approach after he witnessed the land-use conflicts firsthand whilst serving as the inaugural wildlife veterinary officer for Botswana’s Department for Wildlife and National Parks in the early 1990s. His approach has been to create spaces where the wildlife and livestock sectors can work together.

“The science is in many ways the easy part,” Osofsky says, “the hard part is getting different sectors to acknowledge that they are talking about the same land base so they’re going to have to work together.”

Osofsky and his colleagues at the Animal & Human Health for the Environment And Development (AHEAD) program proposed adopting an alternative approach to FMD risk management that would focus on the safety of beef products rather than the disease status of their geographic origin. If beef is processed correctly, the risk of FMD virus transmission can be reduced to acceptable levels. Even fresh chilled meat can be considered safe if it has been processed correctly.

The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), which sets the international guidelines for the management and movement of animals and animal products for disease control, has long accepted the safety of processed beef, but with a number of caveats, such as a minimum of two vaccinations, use of an approved abattoir, and inspections for the presence of FMD 24 hours before and after slaughter.

This was feasible for northern Botswana, but there was one OIE guideline that was problematic for KAZA’s farmers: the animal must not have been within a 10–kilometer (6-mile) radius of an FMD-infected animal for 30 days before slaughter. With wild buffalo and other wildlife roaming, this was simply impossible for government veterinarians in KAZA to say with any certainty.

The AHEAD program’s proposed approach, known as commodity-based trade (CBT), has been gaining traction with the governments of SADC nations. In 2015, SADC successfully lobbied the OIE to change the guidelines to allow animals to be kept in a quarantine station for 30 days before slaughter as an alternative to requiring the 10-kilometer radius free from an FMD-infected animal.

This seemingly small change along with an increased acceptance of trade between regions with an infected FMD status has given beef farmers in regions such as KAZA potential access to the rapidly expanding middle-class market in neighboring African nations, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Letlhogile Modisa, director of Botswana’s veterinary services, says a CBT approach will also reduce the impact of FMD in the region; quarantine periods after an outbreak have been reduced from six months to 30 days, for example.

“CBT is very beneficial because one is looking at the safety of the product rather than the geographical distribution of the affected area,” Modisa says. “Trade is going to be more or less continuous and we are trading in safer commodities.”

But CBT is far from a guarantee of success for the beef trade in KAZA. Two papers modeling the economic potential of CBT in Namibia and Ethiopia suggest that the approach may be more challenging in reality, with the additional costs associated with compliance eroding the benefits of access to higher-value markets.

After stagnating for so long, the beef industry in regions such as northern Botswana is a long way from being at full strength. AHEAD has identified a number of issues in the way herds are managed, grazed, and slaughtered and processed.

A farmer with his bull at Kalakamati, Botswana. Image by Mompati Dikunwane via Wikicommons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Even then, KAZA’s farmers are unlikely to reach the standards required for the highest-value export markets. They will face tough competition from other low-cost beef producers like Brazil, and the EU is unlikely to ever accept beef from an FMD-infected zone.

For Osofsky, that’s not a problem. CBT was never meant to turn KAZA into a major beef producer; instead, AHEAD’s intention has always been to make the sector a sustainable part of a holistic approach to land management in wildlife-rich regions such as KAZA to help alleviate poverty.

“The attitude of pitting livestock against wildlife is really entrenched, so it’s really been a pleasure in the last few years to see those divisions melting away and, in some cases, see earnest collaboration,” he says.

For the first time in many years, there is serious consideration in the KAZA region about the role and impact of fences. Fences will always play a role here, and some of the initially reviled disease-control fences are now even supported by conservationists as they have become a barrier to livestock encroachment. There is no question of removing all the fences, but Osofsky and his colleagues argue that the realignment or removal of certain key stretches would have a big impact.

One such stretch runs along the border between Namibia and Botswana, forming the northern boundary of the enclosed pocket above the Okavango Delta panhandle. Removing this fence would allow elephants to move across their traditional migration pathways between the dry and wet seasons. It would also allow them to leave areas of high human-wildlife conflict and repopulate areas inside Angola, where poaching has decimated local populations.

A lot of work will be required from the KAZA countries before this vision can become a reality, in particular tackling the poaching crisis in southern Angola. If this can be done, Osofsky says he’s hopeful that a healthy beef industry can co-exist alongside a thriving ecotourism sector, and the economic vision of KAZA as a poverty-alleviation tool as well as conservation area can be realized.

“KAZA countries are looking for tourism success,” he says, “but they can’t do that unless [they] increase security for wildlife and restore key migratory paths that had existed long before fences started to go up.”


Cumming, D. H., Osofsky, S. A., Atkinson, S. J., & Atkinson, M. W. (2015). Beyond fences: wildlife, livestock and land use in Southern Africa. One Health: The theory and practice of integrated health approaches, 243-257. doi:10.1079/9781780643410.0243

Rich, K. M., Perry, B. D., & Kaitibie, S. (2009). Commodity-based trade and market access for developing country livestock products: The case of beef exports from Ethiopia. International Food and Agribusiness Management Review, 12(3), 1-22. doi:10.22004/ag.econ.53794

Rich, K. M., & Perry, B. D. (2011). Whither commodity-based trade? Development Policy Review, 29(3), 331-357. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7679.2011.00536.x

Naziri, D., Rich, K. M., & Bennett, B. (2015). Would a commodity-based trade approach improve market access for Africa? A case study of the potential of beef exports from communal areas of Namibia. Development Policy Review, 33(2), 195-219. doi:10.1111/dpr.12098


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Correction 12/12/19: The name of the chief of Habu village’s son was incorrectly given as Mod Modisa. His name is Mod Masedi.

Banner image: Cattle in the Okavango Delta. Image by Diego Delso via Wikicommons (CC BY-SA 4.0)