Beetle and oxpecker to star in special ecosystems show

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Shamwari head ranger Andrew Kearney.
Shamwari head ranger Andrew Kearney.
Claire Gunn

The Addo flightless dung beetle and humble oxpecker are set to star in a World Environment Day television special to show the impact of unsustainable human activity on fragile ecosystems and how these can be restored.

Created for Shamwari TV, it uses the story of the Eastern Cape private game reserve to show how interconnected ecosystems are easily destroyed and the complexity of slowly rebuilding them.

Free-roaming black rhino in the Eastern Cape were exterminated by 1853, followed in 1873 by the true quagga.

Free-roaming Cape lions disappeared from the area in 1879, cheetahs in 1888, hippos in 1903 and by 1919 there were no more free-roaming brown hyenas.

Fortunately, the last 11 elephants were saved when Addo Elephant Park was proclaimed in 1931 to protect them.

Just over 60 years later, Shamwari began buying farmland, taking down the fences and reintroducing indigenous animals, amongst them, elephant, white rhino and hippo.

Black rhino and buffalo followed in 1993/4, with cheetah, lion and brown hyena being brought back in 2000 and serval and leopard in 2001.

Shamwari head ranger, Andrew Kearney, said that as the first animals began moving through what had been chicory and wheat fields, these “engineers of the bush” began repairing some of plough damage, fertilising the soil with their manure and dispersing seeds.

“Although domestic cattle also carry the ticks and external parasites that these birds eat, to prevent parasitic-borne diseases, farmers dipped their herds in arsenic-based dips. This soon meant the demise of the oxpeckers.”
Shamwari head ranger, Andrew Kearney

This in turn saw some of the hardier plants return, stabilising the soil for grasses and later woody bushes.

“Of course, this all takes time and although some flora recovers reasonably quickly other species can take up to a century. Nearly three decades later some of damage resulting from intensive agriculture can still be clearly seen in the film,” Kearney adds.

The extermination of large game, specifically elephant and buffalo, also impacted smaller species, such as the Addo flightless dung beetle, which is dependent on the dung from these animals for food and nesting.

“When these animals disappeared from the area, the beetle lost its range and was limited to just a small area in Addo,” Kearney said.

“To ensure a complete and healthy ecosystem, in 1997 the Addo flightless dung beetle was reintroduced to Shamwari.

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“Another example is the oxpecker. As the natural wildlife disappeared from the area there was less for the oxpeckers to feed on.

“Although domestic cattle also carry the ticks and external parasites that these birds eat, to prevent parasitic-borne diseases, farmers dipped their herds in arsenic-based dips. This soon meant the demise of the oxpeckers.”

Since the reintroduction of larger game, the population of oxpeckers has also grown and provides an excellent indicator of the health of the ecosystem.

To watch the film go to Shamwari TV at https://youtu.be/ITMKhbgvhI4

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