Community | Jan 2022

People were once springboks

Pippa Skotnes
The |xam ka |ke (|xam Bushmen) were once springbucks and |kákka̅ (the Mantis) shot us, and we really cried (like a little child). Then |kákka̅ said we should become people, because we really cried.[i]

There was a time when the vast migratory herds of springbok from the southern Kalahari through Gordonia and into the Karoo were such a spectacle that no one who saw them could imagine that they would ever be a species under threat. Yet, in the late 1900s, springboks were shot to virtual extinction in the Northern Cape. Rinderpest further decimated populations. Over the 20th century, their numbers increased and stabilised so that, while they are now still hunted for trophies and meat, they are not listed as a species at risk. Yet over the past 20 years there has been an alarming decline in springbok herds, particularly in the western Kalahari where there has been an estimated 80 percent drop in their numbers.[ii]

Historical descriptions and eye-witness accounts reveal the springbok migrations as an astonishing spectacle. Distinguished from the ‘houbokke’  those who stayed in their home place), the ‘trekbokke’ migrated in numbers that exceeded (so it was claimed) the great bison migrations of North America. It was a paradise for hunters. In the mid-19th century, the explorer William Cotton Oswell wrote: On the plains between the Orange and Molopo Rivers, springbucks were met with in vast herds. For an hour’s march with the wagons … I once saw them thicker than I ever saw sheep; they were to be counted only by tens of thousands.[iii] Oswell, who, in one day, was reported to have shot fourteen hippopotami, two large bull elephants, a giraffe, and a quagga, from which were stripped and dried over 60,000 pounds of meat, [iv] was in his element. Springboks were present in such profusion that Oswell imagined that one gun could easily have kept eight hundred men fattened and supplied with a store sufficient to last for months.[v]

‘In the field’ illustrated in an article about springbok hunting in South Africa. The Graphic November 7, 1885, pg 512.

Gordon Cumming, known as ‘the Lion Hunter’ of the 1840s, described how he stood on the fore chest of his wagon, watching the springboks pass like the flood of some great river,  with nothing but springboks as far as the eye could see. [vi] But even in those days the memory of previous migrations made these seem meagre. A generation before, the ‘trekbokke’ would move through the country in such numbers that a man on a horse could ride for a day without finding the end of the herd. Their numbers were so great that often they were unable to avoid anything in their path, trekking through towns, massed in the streets and becoming easy prey for the local hunters who picked them off in the dozens. Some merely stood on their front stoeps and took aim.

Springbok shooting in South Africa. The Illustrated London News, November 18, 1893, pg 633.

By the end of the 19th century, SC Cronwright-Schreiner (a farmer and husband of author Olive Schreiner) reported on what he described as one of the last great springbok treks. Tens of thousands had trekked into the Cape Colony, crashing through farm fences and trampling everything in their way. Ahead of the herds, a Karoo farmer noted … hares and other small animals were racing past … and snakes were out in the open, too, moving fast and seeking cover under the rocks on the hill. [vii] On one farm some springboks had become trapped in enclosures and over a thousand were shot to clear an ostrich camp with another thousand dying from injuries. Described as destructive as locusts, the migrating buck destroyed cultivated fields everywhere and the meagre water supplies were muddied, with corpses remaining in the pans after the migration had passed. Small animals were lying dead every-where, wrote journalist and author Lawrence Green from an eye-witness account, tortoises crushed almost to pulp, fragments of fur that had been hares. A tree, pointing in the direction of the advancing buck, had become a deadly spike on which two springboks were impaled. [viii]

Cronwright-Schreiner in the Karoo during the springbok trek of 1896, from Cronwright-Schreiner (1925), pg 40.

Some hunters were overcome by the beauty of the springboks, despite the carnage. The English hunter, HA Bryden wrote: As the bullets whistled past them, the springboks, not to disgrace their name, leapt high in the air, ten feet or more, arching their backs and unfolding the long, snow-white hair that usually lies hidden upon their croups. A singular and beautiful sight indeed! Again we fired, and this time the tell-tale thud proclaimed a hit, and a hard one, for an antelope staggered, fell, and shortly was secured; a good shot, and a most lucky one, at nearly 400 yards. We carried the dead beauty to our cart, and again trekked with renewed spirits. [ix]

The Trekbokke of 1896, from Cronwright-Schreiner (1925), pg 48.

In the wake of the migration came the carnivores: wild dogs, unknown in some parts for years, hyenas, leopards, jackals and vultures who, as magistrate and author WC Scully writes, would tear out the eyes of the less vigorous who lag behind. [x] And, of course, not least of all were the humans. In the mid-19th century Dutch farmers (Boers) were armed with muzzle-loading rifles. By the time the Anglo-Boer War broke out in 1900, most were equipped with breech-loading Martini-Henrys or Mausers. Boers made on average just over two shillings per buck and every farmhouse could be seen drying biltong and skins. Sportsmen and pot-hunters as well as local herders found an easy source of meat, and trophies and horns were sold as curios.

At that time, it was not clear why the springboks migrated. Most thought it was to escape drought in the arid Kalahari interior or find greener pasture. David Livingstone imagined, however, that it could not be for want of water for, he wrote, this antelope is one of the most abstemious in this respect [xi] n or was it for want of food, as they come from the north when grass most abounds. He concluded that the high grass, that obscured their outlook on the land, made them uneasy and drove them into places where they had a better view of approaching predators. This view was reinforced, for him, by the practice of the Bakalahari (a term for a subjugated class of people in the Kalahari of the mid-19th century) who would burn areas of grassland to lower the grasses and attract the springboks to the new growth. Cronwright-Schreiner, however, suggested that Livingstone knew nothing at all about trekbokke and his ideas were not to be taken seriously.

The influential zoologist and one of the founders of animal psychology, Lloyd Morgan, author of Habit and Instinct, attributed the migrations to an innate impulse, an instinct; and TB Davie, a Prieska resident, suggested that the treks were erratic, and that only during certain years and at all sorts of uncertain seasons would the springbuck begin to congregate in these extraordinary numbers, and, that impelled by some guiding instinct, gathered together in mobs, moving aimlessly about, first here and then there, having no apparent direction and yet feeling restless and uneasy. [xii]  He found too, that the direction of the treks would also vary; some to the south and west and some to the north. WC Scully wrote that on one trek millions of them crossed the mountain range and made for the sea. They dashed into the waves, drank the salt water, and died. Their bodies lay in one continuous pile along the shore for over thirty miles, and the stench drove the Trek-boers who were camped near the coast far inland. [xiii]

Image taken at Tswalu Kalahari by Barry Peiser.

Today the great migrations of the 19th century are over, but as recently as 1954, Lawrence Green wrote that in the late autumn, large herds of springbok, estimated at around fifteen thousand bucks, streamed out of the Kalahari and into the Gordonia district like the migratory swarms of last century. [xiv] At the time there was a ban on hunting certain game, and even though the farmers appealed against this as their fences were being broken and their grazing destroyed, the local magistrate along with a police officer who flew over the migration, decided that there was no need to lift the ban on all hunting … Farmers would be allowed to fire their rifles to frighten the buck away – but only under police supervision. [xv]

There is almost nothing recorded from San in the Gordonia districts from the 19th and early 20th centuries about the springbok migrations, but the San of the Northern Cape, who lived in the Karoo and along the Orange River at that time, had a very special relationship with this antelope. They described an early time in which all animals were people (although they had animal’s names) but they said that people were once springboks. The |xam knew when the springboks were coming, for they could feel the black on the sides of the springbok in their bodies; they could feel what they called the ‘springbok sensation’. This was described as a kind of tapping, or presentiment, a sensation they called |kum̅m̅We feel |kum  in our feet when the springbok hooves are rustling. We feel |kum̅m̅ in our heads where the springbok horns are. We feel |kum̅m̅ in our faces where the black stripe of the springbok is. [xvi] When the springboks arrived, the |xam would say that they resembled the stars of the Milky Way; their numbers were so numerous and this was why not only the Boers’ gunpowder became exhausted [xvii] but so did their arrows.

||kabbo, a |xam man interviewed in the 1870s, whose grandmother, he said, was a springbok !gixa (‘sorcerer’) – a woman who could summons springboks – explained that he would begin to look out for the springboks once the dry season was over and the rains had come. Drought would drive the springboks away, but the scent of the rain would draw them back. Springboks were understood to have an exceptional sense of smell and could detect the petrichor from a great distance. This keen sense of smell was given an almost mystical quality by the |xam. Springbok, they believed, were prescient and could smell things that happened at a distant place: a springbok smells afar off; therefore, it knows all things. [xviii] Dia!kwain, a young |xam man arrested for the killing of a farmer in 1869, was interviewed in Cape Town after serving a five-year sentence at the Breakwater Convict Station. He told a story of how the springboks had known the time of his first wife’s death, and after she was buried they had slept on her grave. [xix] When Dia!kwain’s father died, the springboks had arrived in numbers and walked past the hut in which his father lay. As they left a wind picked up and Dia!kwain knew it was his father’s wind, and the springboks were running ahead of it.

|xam views of the environment are often couched in terms that are categorised as myth-like or superstitious, but at their core is a deep knowledge of, and engagement with, their environment and the animals that lived within it. Chris Roche, for instance, argues for the value of appreciating indigenous views in trying to understand springbok migrations as ecologically derived events: the |xam relationship between springboks and rain (and resultant vegetation response) is clear: springboks were forced to leave the land of the /Xam by a lack of rain and only returned after precipitation had prompted the regrowth of bushes and grass. These movements, despite some seasonality and a certain degree of predictability, were not consistent and were affected by local rainfall events such as droughts. As a result springbok herd sizes were variable, with times of plenty being appreciated by the /Xam. [xx] In the 1990s, JD Skinner, noted scholar of the springbok, made a study of their migrations and found that of the 33 he identified similar conclusions could be drawn. They were a response to rainfall. Movement from Namaqualand were migrations between summer and winter rainfall areas, while those from the southern to eastern Nama Karoo and from the Kalahari into the Nama Karoo were driven by drought.

Yet, the |xam also understood that the springboks not only responded to environmental imperatives, but were cultural beings – they ‘know all things’ – and had agency too – the springbok gathered because they knew that she would die’. ‘Indigenous views’ include explanations that fall outside the realm of scientific explanation. Springboks gather in huge numbers if a white springbok is present, they disperse if a white springbok is killed, they move to the place of a death, they calm their children with gentle grunts, they possess magic arrows.

Springbok attending to an itch. Tswalu, Photograph Pippa Skotnes.

It remains unclear why springbok numbers in the Kalahari are in such drastic decline, or indeed how widespread such decline is. JD Skinner observed a dramatic decrease in territorial males but no evidence of increased mortality due to drought or disease. A more recent study, assessing populations across Botswana and the Kalahari, could offer no conclusive explanation either. [xxi] Perhaps it is time for scientists, and others, to consider the value of |xam (and other) views, and indeed, think alongside them; not as evidence of ecological imperatives or as affirmation of scientific theories about climate and change, but as a prompt to consider the cultural adaptions that occur as a result of the circumstances of history and the actions of people. Houbokke survived, while trekbokke were subject to all the dangers of migration, disease and the ruthless pursuit of hunters. |xam understood the attraction of rain to springboks but they knew that they made decisions too. To understand the springboks and interpret their movements, they had to let them get, literally, under their skin.

About the author: Pippa Skotnes is Principal Research Professor at the Centre for Curating the Archive at the University of Cape Town. She directs a project to digitize and edit the vast Bleek and Lloyd archive which includes extensive dictionaries for endangered and extinct indigenous languages. She is also working on a related project called the Animal Collegium which explores archives that reflect changing relationships between animals and people in the Northern Cape and southern Kalahari. She has a long association with Tswalu, which includes developing imagery for the aircraft livery for Tswalu’s Fireblade Aviation. These images reflect on the ideas of indigenous people that stories once travelled along paths and floated on the wind.

[ii] Skinner, J.D. and Moss, D.G. 2004. Kgalagadi springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis): bucking the trend. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 59, pg 2, 119-121
[iii] Oswell, William Edward. 1900. William Cotton Oswell, hunter and explorer: the story of his life. New York: Double Day. Volume 2, pg 15
[iv] Kephart, Horace. Introduction, in Gordon-Cumming,  Roualeyn. 1922.  The lion hunter: in the days when all South Africa was virgin hunting field. New York, The Macmillan Company, pg 6
[v] Kephart, Horace. Introduction, in Gordon-Cumming, Ronaleyn. 1922.  The lion hunter: in the days when all South Africa was virgin hunting field. New York, The Macmillan Company, pg 6
[vi] Cronwright-Schreiner, Samuel. 1925. The migratory springbucks of South Africa (the trekbokke). London: T. Fisher Unwin, pg 41.
[vii] Green, Lawrence. 1955. Karoo. Howard Timmins. Available at
[viii] Green, Lawrence. 1955. Karoo. Howard Timmins. Available at
[ix] Bryden, H.A. Kloof and Karroo: sport, legend and natural history in the Cape Colony. London: Longmans, Green and Co, pg 60
[x] Scully, W.C. in Cronwright-Schreiner, Samuel. 1925. The migratory springbucks of South Africa (the trekbokke). London: T. Fisher Unwin, pg 71
[xi] Livingstone, D. in Cronwright-Schreiner, Samuel. 1925. The migratory springbucks of South Africa (the trekbokke). London: T. Fisher Unwin, pg 68
[xii] Davie, T.B. . in Cronwright-Schreiner, Samuel. 1925. The migratory springbucks of South Africa (the trekbokke). London: T. Fisher Unwin, pg 56
[xiii] W C Scully. Between Sun and Sand, in Cronwright-Schreiner, Samuel. 1925. The migratory springbucks of South Africa (the trekbokke). London: T. Fisher Unwin, pg 69­–70
[xiv] Green, Lawrence. The Best of Lawrence Green. Apple Books. Available at:
[xv] Green, Lawrence. The Best of Lawrence Green. Apple Books. Available at:
[xvi] Bleek, W.H.I. and Lloyd, L. 1911. Specimens of Bushman Folklore. London: George Allen & Co, pg 333-335
[xviii] Dia!kwain, The springbok’s story, The Digital Bleek and Lloyd. Available at:
[xx] Roche, C. 2004. “Ornaments of the desert” springbok treks in the Cape Colony, 1774-1908. MA thesis, University of Cape Town, pg 58
[xxi] Moatswi, T., Maude, G., Reading, R., Selebatso, M., and Bennitt, E. 2020. Factors contributing to the springbok population decline in the Kalahari, Botswana. African J. of Wildlife Research, 50(1), pg 119–131