Can elands fix the Cape Flats?


Elands in the Cape Flats? Not something you see every day. But centuries ago, these mammals roamed the area with no restrictions. As it developed over the years since, the herbivores who fed on the woody invasive bushes nearby were forced out. As a result, alien vegetation began to encroach on the plant life endemic to the area. In a bid to save the now-threatened indigenous strandveld, Ricardo Downes is reintroducing the antelope to the Cape Flats after more than 200 years of absence. The project will allow for the preservation of the natural structure of the strandveld and increase the biodiversity of the area.

Growing up in Lavender Hill in the Cape Flats, working with elands was the furthest thing from Downes’ mind. After leaving school early to look for work that would support his mother and siblings, he joined the WESSA Youth Environmental Services Programme, a learnership providing job opportunities for unemployed and disadvantaged youth. Downes showed initiative while based at the Zeekoevlei Environmental Education Centre, and in 2016 was contracted to work with the rehomed elands. He has trained as an eland monitor for the Gantouw Project and received accreditation in Environmental Practices. While furthering his education and skill set, Downes has also formed a close bond with the five animals in his care, Mike, Gibbs, Uniqua, Berni and Little P. “The elands accept me as part of their herd,” Downes says. “Just getting close to them is an awesome experience.” 

Downes’ contributions to his community are not limited to the eland project. Together with his wife, he offers home-cooked meals, storytelling and guidance to children in Lavender Hill. By sharing his environmental knowledge and experience working with the elands, he’s enabling the youth to take interest and pursue opportunities in ecotourism and environmental projects. Downes’ work is proof that with the right kind of interference, both the Cape Flats community and its natural environment can thrive.