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What is Conservation Agriculture?

Last edited - 02 Feb 19

Conservation Agriculture' describes a combination of 'Regenerative Agriculture' and wildlife conservation.  Generally, conservation ag would tend toward a rangeland agriculture model, rather than a crop farming model.  Regenerative rangeland agriculture tends to be livestock focused and uses Holistic or Regenerative Rangeland Management to build and maintain soil health and ecosystem biodiversity.

The true origin of conservation ag come out of Zimbabwe's predecessor, Rhodesia.  The first 'Game Reserve' was formed in 1928 and updated with the passage of the 1949 National Parks Act.  Managed by the Rhodesia's 'Game Section', which became the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management in 1964, Rhodesian Parks marked the epicentre for a revolution in conservation.  

With the formation of the first parks in Rhodesia, later to become Zaire and Zimbabwe, local residents and their villages were resettled outside park boundaries.  Within a few years, the river systems in the parks, until then healthy and stable, began to fail.  Vegetation that stabilised the river banks began to die off and serious erosion began to take place.  Biodiversity in the areas close to the rivers began to reduce due to wildlife overgrazing and regions further from the rivers began to lose biodiversity due to what is now known as 'over-rest'.  Many park biologists and staff began to question the efficacy of their park management strategies.

Meanwhile, outside the parks, wildlife were viewed by the general population as competing for food and space with economically valuable livestock.  Rather than being seen as a precious resource, wildlife was seen as a pest to be eradicated and/or a quick meal.

In 1975, this antagonistic relationship with wildlife began to change.  Under the Parks and Wildlife Act of 1975, ownership of wildlife shifted from the state, to the owners of the land on which the wildlife lived.  Almost immediately a shift in attitude toward wildlife began.  Instead of being seen as a pest to be eradicated, or simply a quick meal, wildlife became a valuable resource to be nurtured and preserved for the longer term.  Wildlife had been given the economic value previously reserved for domestic livestock.

Meanwhile, a number of biologists and other scientists began to understand the problem with western park management strategies.  The path of discovery is a very long one that has filled several books, but in simple terms, they began to understand the vital importance of grazing herbivores to grasslands ecosystems, combined with the vital influence of predator pressure on the herding behaviour of these herds of keystone grazing species.

Grazing experiments carried out by Zimbabwean and South African ranchers revealed discoveries made a generation before by Andre Voisin in France.  In summary, it was found that the impact of mob grazing herbivores was essential in renewing grasslands ecosystems.  Through cycles of grazing and trampling, these animals contributed to the biological decay and recycling of plant matter, building topsoil and stimulating new waves of growth.  In addition, the pressure of predators, keeping the herds bunched up, combined with the constant fouling of their food source through trampling, urination and defecation, kept these herds on the move constantly. 


Rarely did animals spend too long in one area, killing off plant species through overgrazing.  Also rarely did any land area escape their passing for more than a couple of seasons.  This constant cycle of short term animal impact, followed by longer periods of rest and regrowth, sustained the biodiversity that represents a natural grasslands ecosystem.

In brittle and semi-brittle environments, this animal impact is essential for sustained ecosystem health.  Many plant species cannot survive for long without the regenerative process driven by the impact of large herds of mob grazing herbivores.

When the people were removed from the parks of Rhodesia (and other African countries), the predator pressure that drove grazing wildlife to keep moving was removed.  They adopted a sedentary lifestyle close to available water and the result was ecosystem failure.  Nature's cycle of regeneration had been interrupted, with tragic results.

Quite famously, the same problem occurred in Yellowstone National Park in the US.  River systems became very unhealthy and unstable, parts of the park were seriously overgrazed and suffering serious biodiversity loss while other parts of the park were relatively untouched by wildlife and failed to regenerate, also resulting in biodiversity loss. 


However, having studied the experiences of African parks, US park managers tried a new plan and, in 1995, began the reintroduction of timber wolves into the park.  The short video 'The Wolves that Changed Rivers', found on YouTube, is a great summary of the amazing positive result on the entire Yellowstone Park ecosystem.

Prior to the formation of the first Game Reserves in Rhodesia, humans and other predators had performed much of the same function as the wolves of Yellowstone National Park.  They kept the grazing herbivores moving and regenerating the plant and soil ecosystems.  When most of the predators had been eradicated by people protecting their villages and livestock, humans still provided the predator pressure to keep the grazing herds moving naturally.  Unfortunately, when humans were removed from the ecosystem the last predators were removed, triggering a trophic cascade and the ecosystem fell apart.

With these discoveries in mind and the ownership of wild animals being legalized, Zimbabwean ranchers began to create private game reserves, often with some domestic livestock mixed in.  With revenue generated from tourism, safaris and hunting, more and more land was dedicated to wildlife and greater employment for local people was realised.  The wildlife provided food and financial security for local people and valuable revenue to maintain the game preserves.  Conservation agriculture was born.

Conservation ag really began to gain wider acceptance when, in 1991, the South African Government deregulated the private ownership of wildlife.  Traditional western conservation efforts, developed in Europe and North America, but spread to Africa, tended to be highly reductionist in their scientific focus.  This narrow focus tended to inhibit whole system management and the result can be seen by reading National Geographic from the 1950s to the 1980s.  Simply put, western conservation efforts were disastrous and wildlife park ecosystems were failing terribly with huge losses in biodiversity and multiple species ending up extinct or on the brink of extinction.

Having seen the Rhodesian/Zimbabwean successes to their north, South Africa abandoned the western conservation model and joined the revolution.  Since deregulating the ownership of wildlife in 1991, the following has happened:

1.  By 2018, 10000+ wildlife preserves were managed by 2000+ game ranches in South Africa.

2.  Wildlife preserves resulted in 3x the employment of the livestock ranches they replaced.

3.  Over 20 million hectares (50 million acres) of private land has been dedicated to wildlife, a substantially greater area than all of South Africa's public parks.

4.  Game ranches now provide valuable migratory corridors between South Africa's national parks, facilitating much needed genetic flow within wildlife populations.

5.  Large scale recovery of biodiversity and soil health has been realised in natural polyculture game preserves.

6.  Game ranching now provides the South African economy with a R20 billion industry.

Most Importantly:

7.  Bontesbok, Blesbok, Roan & Sable Antelope, Tsessebe, Black Wildebeest and Leopard Tortoise have all been rescued from the brink of extinction.

'Conservation Agriculture'!!!

In Canada and the US, a growing number of farmers and ranchers are joining the African conservation revolution.  They've adopted or are in the process of adopting regenerative agricultural processes and integrating the keystone species of the Great Plains, the North American Bison.  Like the Wildebeest, Antelope and Zebra of Africa, Bison were the keystone ecosystem regenerators of the North American Great Plains and many members of the Canadian Bison Association and the National Bison Association are dedicated to returning them to their rightful place in the grasslands ecosystems of North America and returning them to a prominent position in the food chain.

The Africans may be 20 years ahead of the west in wildlife conservation, but a revolution is occurring in our back yard.



Featured in African Geographic, this chart shows the relationship between 'conventional' agriculture and nature preserves.  However, the combination of 'Regenerative Agriculture' and 'Game Ranching' results in 'Conservation Agriculture', which early results indicate can produce food security while providing similar species conservation to nature preserves.

'Contribution of game ranching' - Dr Pamela Oberem, The New Game Rancher

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