Coming back home to Vergelegen

Gantouw Project manager, Petro Botha, talks about the project at the release of five eland onto Vergelegen wine estate in Somerset West, while one of her soon-to-be-released charges peers over the boma gate.

It is a bright cool morning, Wednesday July 29, atop the hill in the lee of the Hottentots Holland Mountains that tower over Vergelegen wine estate.

The excitement is palpable as we approach the boma, the buzz of speculation about what we are here to witness muted, hushed, as if we don’t want to disturb the magnificent creatures that we have come to witness laying claim to the veld that was the home of their ancestors many years ago.

There is an element of the surreal, that we should be here in this time of pandemic, which makes what we are about to experience, that much more special.

Vergelegen managing director Wayne Coetzer, welcomes the assembled company, and as he briefly explains why we’re here, we see, with wonder, the charges in the care of the monitors in the screened boma behind him.

As the speeches unfold, it is difficult to ignore the restless movement behind the faux-hessian side of the boma, and focus on what is being said about the five-year Gantouw Project, culminating in today’s momentous event.

But it is when Petro Botha, Cape Town Environmental Education Trust’s (CTEET) project manager of the Gantouw Project speaks, that inquisitive eyes behind a whiffling muzzle peer, over the gate as if to say: “Okay, already! You can let us out now!”

Recently retired Vergelegen managing director, Don Tooth, who played a pivotal role in the estate’s commitment to conservation, is today’s guest of honour, and to him falls the privilege of opening the boma gate, so that the five magnificent eland that have spent the night there, can walk out into their new home.

The majestic eland, now five years old, habituated to human interaction as Ms Botha explained, walk confidently out into the open, completely unperturbed by the semi-circle crowd of Vergelegen staff, CTEET staff, special guests and media, waiting in awe to meet them.

The biggest of the African antelopes, they are disconcertingly large close up, towering over the tallest of men, looking most of us directly in the eye.

Incredibly, one of them walks confidently up to me, its questing nose reaching for my camera lens. Despite its impressive size, it has an aura of peaceful gentleness, and the urge to reach out and touch it, is almost irresistible.

Having spent their entire five years in the presence of monitors, they are completely at ease with humans, and we are all treated to the rare privilege of an eye-to-eye engagement with these gentle giants.

Speaking after symbolically releasing the five eland onto Vergelegen, Mr Tooth said of his experience: “I was watching their eyes in particular, to try and make certain I wasn’t going to startle them, and they were so tranquil, they looked so much at peace. It was almost as if they were communicating with me and saying: ‘It’s okay we are really thrilled to be here’.

“And seeing them move out like that tells me they’ve been treated incredibly well, and therefore we know that we are working with a group of people and a group of partners who have a true love for nature. It was an enormously emotional experience.”

Reflecting upon the significance of the moment he said: “This is another step in the right direction and I think that’s one of the things that’s been gratifying to me over the years – watching not leaps, but steps, and it’s been done with an amazing team.

“That’s what really tugs at my heartstrings. This is not about Vergelegen, it’s not about the people of Vergelegen, it’s about the people of the Cape, it’s about the people of South Africa.

“And everyone has contributed to what we are doing. You can’t help feeling really close to nature and close to something special, when seeing this today.”

Asked if he would be back for a visit, Mr Tooth says, with a grin: “Have camera, have key to gate, will be back.”

Vergelegen farm manager, Les Naidoo, had this to say: “As I saw those animals coming out, I thought to myself: ‘They belong here, that’s it.’ They look like they belong here, they always have been here, and I actually said to Anthony Roberts (CTEET CEO): ‘It actually seems as if you borrowed the animals from us, as if they’re not actually your animals, that you borrowed them, have taken them away for a time, and they have now come back home.’ So that’s exactly what the message is: they’ve come back home, and more than anything else, they’re absolutely at home in this environment.

“You know, you talk about emotion, and I think this is where we always say that if you come to Vergelegen and you look at what we’ve actually done here, if you don’t have that passion when you arrive, believe me, when you leave, you walk away with that kind of passion. For me, having been involved in this project for such a long time, it’s an inbuilt thing, that passion is there.

“If you look at what else we’ve done with the property, this is an advance of that whole environmental experience. Looking at what we want to do going forward, this represents those educational opportunities for us, in terms of getting the community involved, getting people to actually come and look at what we’re doing on the property.

“You try to understand what is right for the property but no matter how glamorous it is if it’s not right for the property, if it doesn’t fit then it’s not going to come here.These animals fit. They are back home. To have been a part of the whole project from the start has been an amazing experience.”

Special guest, Sub-council 24 chairperson, Stuart Pringle, spoke about the significance of the occasion for the community: “This is an historic occasion returning these eland to the veld here on the farm, and it ties in with historic links that Vergelegen has with Somerset West because this is where Somerset West originated. So to return these animals to the wild, to conserve them, is an amazing part of conserving our heritage, and I really want to thank the owners of Vergelegen, CTEET and all the role-players for this initiative.

“Conserving nature isn’t about only conserving fauna and flora.

“It’s about educating us as people how to live with the planet, and during this difficult time, it is something that I think more and more people are realising, they are realising the importance of the natural world, and I think this initiative will help in educating people how we can all live together in a sustainable fashion.”

The arrival of the eland (Taurotragus oryx) at Vergelegen forms the latest stage of the Gantouw Project, a programme of the non-profit CTEET, and has been in operation since 2015 under its Nature Care Fund. The project mimics the historic migration of eland, using them as a natural driver to boost ecosystem diversity.

“Gantouw is a word that is derived from the Khoi language and means ‘the way of the eland’,” said Dr Anthony Roberts, CEO of CTEET. “This refers to a path that eland carved into the land over many years as they migrated back and forth from the Cape Flats over the Hottentots Holland Mountains.

“Urbanisation has resulted in fragmented ecosystems, many of which are collapsing. By introducing eland and allowing them to browse vegetation and prevent bush encroachment, one of the main threats to the ecological health of these systems, the characteristic diversity of the veld starts to return and the ecosystem functions more effectively.”

The impact of the eland on the Vergelegen veld will be monitored using drones and spectral imaging, as well as on-the-ground flora and fauna surveys. This will indicate the animals’ grazing preferences, their impact on flora and fauna, and estimations of veld carrying capacity.

The eland group comprises three cows and two neutered bulls, transported from Elandsberg, Wellington. The project will run for five years, then be reviewed.

Vergelegen has provided a fenced 10-hectare camp near the hilltop wine cellar, secluded from its hospitality and management operations. CTEET has erected a boma in this camp to shelter the eland, and estate management has undertaken to monitor their health. CTEET will conduct research to obtain baseline data as well as ongoing ecological monitoring, and will submit an annual report.

The first phase of the Gantouw Project focused on Cape Flats Dune Strandveld, which is endangered and only found on the lowlands of Cape Town. At Vergelegen, the eland will graze on various species of fynbos including renosterbos, osteospermum, searsia, helichrysum, oxalis, various grasses and restios. The eland research will form part of a PhD thesis by Ms Botha, the Gantouw project manager.