Itâs time to stop seeing what we believe and start believing what we see.  By Allan Savory


This is a global warning. We can turn our lands in seasonally dry climates into lifeless deserts, or we can keep them alive and vibrant, conserving and nurturing every drop of water. Land on the threshold of desertification can become a shining example of biodiversity. It doesnât take any fancy tools or expensive equipment. All it really takes is for ranchers and environmentalists to stop seeing each other as enemies and look critically and dispassionately at examples from around the world. Itâs time to stop seeing what we believe and start believing what we see.

In my homeland of Zimbabwe, there is a worse land degradation, poverty and loss of wildlife situation than in the arid West of the United States. That can be changed. It has already been dramatically changed in one area known as the Dimbangombe Ranch.

My wife and I donated the ranch to the people of Africa to allow them to benefit from Holistic Management practices. The ranch is owned by a local nonprofit organization alongside a community of over 145,000 people living on communally owned land totaling over a million acres. Dimbangombe staff work under a board of trustees that includes all five of the local tribal chiefs and I am the chairman.

The ranch and the adjacent communal land have the same soils and rainfall. The communal land was settled because it held greater potential for agriculture. Everything depends on the rains that fall from November to March. After March, the area gets increasingly hotter and drier until the rains come again. The average rainfall is about 30 inches, but the last two years have been below that.

When we began using Holistic Management on the ranch, its land was in a seriously degraded state as photos illustrate, although not quite as bad as the communal lands. Over the last seven years, the contrast between the two areas has grown increasingly marked.

The pictures here were taken on a single day in March 2004, on both the ranch and communal lands. They show the land at the best it will be all year. After this point, the long, hot dry season will set in and things become progressively worse till the next rains.

At the outset, when we donated the ranch land, it had no elephant and buffalo at all (due to a veterinary fence, since removed), and a sparse, fluctuating population of other game. While the communal land still supports little wildlife, the situation on the ranch is very different today. The ranch now supports significant and increasing numbers of elephants, buffalo, kudu, sable antelope, waterbuck, zebra, impala, giraffe, reedbuck and many other diurnal and nocturnal animals. Widely ranging elephants can on some days number 300 or more and, likewise, buffalo herds from 500 to 1,000.

Clearly there is a lesson in Africa for us in the West. Some will say what works in Africa does not necessarily work here. But as I have pointed out for years, the ecological principles I am suggesting we use are universal. A number of ranchers in the United States as well as many in Australia have adopted Holistic Management and its associated planned grazing. They have shown this principle of using grazing as a tool to reclaim and revitalize the land to be correct wherever properly used. Without adequate animal numbers and biodiversity, water and vegetation decrease. Holistic Management-planned grazing is an ecologically sound tool that can be used in even the most primitive circumstances.

We have a choice: Abundant food and water for a thirsty world or deserts where nothing grows and potentially productive soil becomes windblown dust. It is a matter of life and death. 


Allan Savory is a wildlife biologist and founding director of the Savory Center for Holistic Management in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Zimbabwe-born scientist has won international acclaim for his innovative methods to reverse desertification, now being used successfully around the world. In 2003 he received the Australian Banksia International Award for the person or organization doing the most for the environment on a global scale. Allanâs book, ăHolistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making,ä Island Press 1999, is today in use in a number of colleges and universities.

Typical view of range condition in the communal land adjoining the ranch. There is little forage for livestock and even less for wildlife. Shrubs, weeds and trees have flourished. Most grass is annual and thus already dry. What perennial grass remains is severely overgrazed by livestock. 

(Photo courtesy Africa Centre for Holistic Management)

A river typical of all the rivers arising on the communal land. This river flash flooded a few times in the rains, but otherwise remained dry. Livestock run on this land must now water on what are known as boreholes with water pumped up by hand from deep underground. There is virtually no water for wildlife through the long dry season. Drought and livestock are blamed for a situation so serious that the bulk of the people are being fed largely by international aid relief on what is inherently highly productive land. 

(Photo courtesy Africa Centre for Holistic Management)

This photo, taken on the same day as photo 2, shows the grass alongside the river arising on the adjacent Dimbangombe Ranch under the management of the Africa Centre for Holistic Management. This long grass grows in favorable and very large low-lying areas. It is currently providing significant employment and income for thatching-grass cutters as thatching grass for homes, hotels and safari camps. 

(Photo courtesy Africa Centre for Holistic Management)

The Dimbangombe River rises on the ranch. This shows the water in it following two years of lower-than-average rainfall. The river now supports water lilies, reed banks, fish of several kinds, pythons, otters, water turtles, kingfishers, a great many species of birds including one pair of fish eagles, and small mammals and reptiles. It also provides year-round water for a great many elephant, buffalo, sable antelope, waterbuck, kudu, reedbuck, zebra, giraffe, lion, leopard, hyena, wild dog, cheetah, warthog, bushpig and other game that have begun to increase.          

      At the outset, this stretch of the river had provided water in one or two pools only in good seasons but dried up in most seasons. The river is not yet flowing again perennially (as almost all rivers in the area once were), but it has this year flowed until one month before the next expected rains and has had perennial pools along its full length throughout. So the wildlife, including the fish and all life supported by them, are now able to exist throughout the year without dying off. 


(Photo courtesy Africa Centre for Holistic Management)

Another view of the land shows average grass coverage, more typical of grass on the ranch than the very long grass shown in photo 3, which tends to occur in certain areas. All of this land improvement was done using a large mixed herd of mainly cattle and goats, but with a few sheep, donkeys, pigs and horses, and one tame elephant joining the herd some days. (We plan to add more elephants to the herd in future.) No range management action was taken other than to increase animal numbers significantly and use holistic planned grazing (as opposed to rotational or management intensive grazing).

     In this case, we use one herd and no fencing. The herd is held overnight in a moveable ălion-proofä kraal (livestock pen), and leaves at dawn to graze according to the plan. After the allotted time in one area of the ranch, the herd, together with the lion-proof kraal, is moved to another area. This procedure is necessary, as we have no desire to kill predators so essential to healthy wildlife and plant communities. Some readers may be aware of the reduction in vegetative damage along riparian areas of Yellowstone National Park since the reintroduction of wolves. As I have often expressed, predators are necessary to change the behavior of their prey and its relationship to the soil and vegetation, or we have to handle the livestock in a manner mimicking that of old under-predation threat.

      Most of the cattle were obtained by offering cattle owners on the communal land grazing and care of their animals to save them from the perennial ădroughtä and almost certain death they were suffering under the same rainfall. Some of these cattle owners recently stated to Roland Bunch, who had been engaged to independently investigate, that had they not been able to send their animals to the ranch, they would have none left today. 


(Photo courtesy Africa Centre for Holistic Management)

Water running in the Dimbangombe River on the ranch. It only stopped actively running in October, one month before the new rains. 

(Photo courtesy Africa Centre for Holistic Management)

This photo was taken on the Dimbangombe Ranch in July 1989÷about midway through the long dry season÷before Holistic Management was introduced. The ranch supported only a few cattle and was in a terrible state, especially along the river. Setaria grass (bristle grass) is shown severely overgrazed and putting out a seed-bearing stalk along the ground, below grazing height. The bare soil led to the Dimbangombe River going dry most years, as rivers still do in the communal lands. 

(Photo courtesy Africa Centre for Holistic Management)

This picture was taken in as near as could be ascertained the same spot as photo 7. It shows the same Setaria grass growing as it normally should. Bare ground is largely a thing of the past; hence the river is flowing once more. 

(Photo courtesy Africa Centre for Holistic Management)

Spring 2005 Contents

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