Well, what a to-do, we bought some Gnu! On Sunday morning, April 29th, 19 blue wildebeest were released to the Ukuwela Conservancy as part of our habitat rehabilitation and re-wilding program. Read more about this exciting moment in the history of the Ukuwela Conservancy.

Blue wildebeest on the move. Photo credit: Martin Harvey/WildscreenExchange

Blue wildebeest on the move. Photo credit: Martin Harvey/WildscreenExchange

It was a hot, dry Sunday morning in late April, when two huge white trailer trucks pulled in noisily to Wild Tomorrow Fund's Ukuwela Conservancy in KwaZulu-Natal South Africa. Neighbors and volunteers had gathered in anticipation of the spectacle of the release of 19 new blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus). A recent assessment of Ukuwela’s habitat found that we have plenty of grassland and can introduce more grazers including wildebeest, zebra, waterbuck and impala. They had arrived.

Wildebeest range in Africa, with the blue wildebeest range in shown in brown.  Source: Wikipedia 

Wildebeest range in Africa, with the blue wildebeest range in shown in brown. Source: Wikipedia 

Wildebeests, also known as a gnus, are found across southern Africa, from Namibia to Mozambique and from southwestern Zambia (south of theZambezi river) to southern Angola. In isiZulu, they are called inkonkoni. Although they look like they should be fierce predators with their large and intimidating apostrophe-shaped horns and shaggy manes, they are part of the Bovidae family which includes antelopes, goats and sheep. Wildebeest, despite their "wild beast" style appearance which coined their name from Dutch settlers, they are actually food prey for the true predators of the African savannah: lions, hyena, wild dogs, crocodiles and cheetahs.

"The grasslands of Ukuwela were once old farmlands, devoid of grazers like zebra and wildebeest", explains Wild Tomorrow Fund's ecologist Axel Hunnicutt. "Their presence together on this land is important to their own survival and will continue to keep these grasslands in a healthy state. Our introduction of more of these species will not only give these animals a new start in a new home, but they will actively help restore this land to a healthy ecosystem."

The wildebeest migration, Kenya 2017.  Photo credit: Nadja Rutkowski, Le Petit Grand Films.

The wildebeest migration, Kenya 2017. Photo credit: Nadja Rutkowski, Le Petit Grand Films.

For visitors on safari in Africa, wildebeest are most well-known for their mass migrations. More than 1.5 million wildebeest migrate in an enormous loop every year, a favorite must-see for wildlife photographers. The annual migration northwest, at the end of the rainy season (usually in May or June) is recognized as one of the "Seven Wonders of the Natural World."

Not all wildebeest migrate, and many migrations have been cut off and lost due to habitat loss (driven by agriculture), competition with cattle and farmers for grazing land, and lack of access to water.

Although they may look slow and lazy, resting half of the day and grazing the other third, they can move very quickly, reaching speeds of up to 80km/h (50mph). And a speedy release it was indeed for the 19 wildebeest set free on Ukuwela that morning. The truck gates opened with a loud rumble and the first three wildebeest jumped out at a gallop speed. Hooves hit the ground and dust was in the air as the wildebeest took flight from the truck.

Ready and waiting to help capture this heart-stopping moment was South African rugby player Joe Pietersen, and his ranger brother Willie Pietersen. Joe and Willie had visited Ukuwela at just the right time to be on the scene to capture this moment for their TV show Veldhelde. Traveling up and down South Africa, Joe & Willie have been meeting people who have dedicated their lives to saving vulnerable species, and Wild Tomorrow Fund is thrilled to feature in an episode, together with neighboring &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve. Velhede aims to puts South African viewers in the shoes of rangers, raising awareness of the challenges of conservation and capturing the passion of everyday people in the field protecting wild animals and their natural habitats.

"We are all one under the African sun. Problems that arise here should concern us all. It is our duty to take care of our country and its beauty. It only takes a select few to make the world of difference" said Joe in an interview for DSTv. 

The moment of release, captured by South African rugby celebrity Joe Pietersen

Meanwhile, 14,000 kilometers (8700 miles) away in Atlanta Georgia, the Wild Tomorrow Fund US team were at a private living room event, speaking about the impacts of habitat loss and our efforts to protect and re-wild land in KwaZulu-Natal's Maputaland, a global biodiversity hotspot. Thanks to our wildlife loving hosts in Atlanta, we raised over $23,000 in support of our habitat protection and wildlife reintroduction work. And two of the nineteen wildebeest now have names: Jack and Timothy are wild and free, grazing and exploring their new home at Ukuwela.

It's been a busy month at Ukuwela. The release of the new wildebeest follows closely on the heels and hooves of eleven zebra who were introduced to their new home just two weeks before. Seven females and four male zebra are now a part of the Ukuwela family. The addition of Pam, Leo, Jesse, Maxwell, Kiasu, Evanna, Spirit, Pierce, Wynn and Elsie the zebras were all sponsored thanks to the generosity of our donors. Just like our fingerprints, every zebra's stripe pattern is unique so we hope to be able to tell the zebra apart from each other soon, with the help of our Wild Volunteers.

Wildebeest commonly associate with zebra who graze on the longer grass, exposing the shorter and greener grass that wildebeest prefer. Together, their combined senses work as a stronger signal to alert each other of danger. Perhaps we will spot them together soon.

Up next in our wildlife introductions are giraffe and waterbuck. We're excited to welcome them to their new home at Ukuwela very soon.

The moment of release as eleven young zebra jump out to their new home at Wild Tomorrow Fund's Ukuwela Conservancy in KwaZulu-Natal South Africa

To catch Velhede tune into Afrikaans lifestyle channel VIA (DStv channel 147) which will also stream live on DSTv Now on Fridays at 5pm (Johannesburg local time) with repeats on Sundays at 9.30pm.

Wild Tomorrow Fund