History of the Savannah Goat

The Savannah Goat in South Africa:
Preserving a Proud Heritage
Brian Payne, Dr. Frank Pinkerton
Grapeland, Texas, January 19, 2003

The Savannah goat in South Africa was first recognized as a distinct breed with the formation of the Savannah Goat
Breeders Society on November 21, 1993. At this time a Breed Standard was drawn up and the Society joined the South
African Studbook Association (Campbell, Origin and Development of Savannah Goats).

A common misconception in North America is that Savannahs are “white Boer goats”. Nothing could be further from the
truth! Mr. Keith Ramsay, Registrar of Livestock Improvement in the South African National Department of Agriculture,
suggests that “the breed is phenotypically different to the Improved Boer Goat…my main criteria when I recommended
that they be recognized as a separate breed. Initial genetic distancing also supported this. The Savannah is a more compact
animal – shorter legs.” (personal communication)

History scholars also suggest that the Savannah goat’s origin is distinct from that of the Boer. The origin of “the Savannah
White Goats of Olierivier” is described in “The Indigenous Sheep and Goat Breeds of South Africa” by Dr. Quentin Peter
Campbell. Dr. Campbell was part of the development team as well as “the officer in charge” of the South African National
Mutton Sheep and Goat Performance Testing Scheme. South African Dorper sheep and Boer goat stud breeders have
recognized his contribution to the development of these fine breeds through his leadership of this program as well as his
academic and judging pursuits.

Dr. Campbell suggests that the Savannah probably developed from goats belonging to the Khosa people of the Ciskei and
Transkei of the Eastern Cape. “These indigenous goats were mostly white or roans or piebalds” while “the most accurate
description of the ancestors of the Boer Goat” was provided by Barrow (1801) who wrote that “near the Hartebees river in
the Northern Cape he encountered some Namaqua Hottentots who possessed a herd of small handsome goats that were
spotted like the leopard.”

Dr. Campbell gives credit to this very early description of the indigenous ancestors of the modern Boer goat by referencing
the first edition of the South African Boer Goat Breeders’ Association Journal (1959). In this issue; Mr. T.B. Jordaan, a
pioneer breeder, declared that “a big, robust, dapple-coloured male goat” was important in the development of the
Buffelsfontein stud. Dr. Campbell then suggests that this stud “influenced the development of the Boer Goat (breed) to a
marked extent.”

Even though a breed’s history is interesting and its appearance important in setting it apart from others of the species, the
key question for all goat ranchers to ask is: Why farm with Savannahs?
Dr. Campbell suggests the following reasons:

1)        Savannah goats are hardy and adaptable with natural resistance against tick born diseases such as heartwater and
against other external parasites.
2)        Since natural selection played a big role in the development of Savannah goats they are heat and drought resistant
and easily endure cold and rain as well. Fully pigmented skin provides protection from strong ultra-violet rays.
3)        Savannah goats have relatively simple and low nutritional requirements and can survive and reproduce where other
small stock breeds can not exist. Savannah goats produce a higher net profit because of lower input costs.
4)        Savannah goats breed year round, exhibit early sexual maturity and have long productive lives. Does aggressively
defend their kids and milk well. Kidding on pasture with no assistance and no need for bonding pens is to be expected.
5)        Savannah goats require minimum handling and care. Range performance trials (Veld tests at Ellisras) indicated that
indigenous goats like the Savannah did not develop mouth or hoof problems as was the case with some Boer goats.
Overdeveloped or “overshot” lower jaws do not occur.
6)        Savannah goats have been selected for rapid growth and good carcass conformation. Their pure white color makes
them much sought after for religious slaughter.   

Savannah breeding, from Dr. Campbell’s perspective, is  fundamentally important because of the crucial role it plays in
indigenous breed preservation. On a global scale “indigenous genetic material is being swept away on a wave of breed
substitution and crossing” (J.P.Gibson, 1993, Animal Breeding has much to offer livestock productivity). The importance of
maintaining breeds with a unique ability to perform in harsh environments is pointed out by Dr. Laurie Hammond (1985),
director of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization as follows:

“Breeds of cattle, pigs and poultry, once the backbone of
farming economies in many countries, were being replaced by
a few super breeds which only performed in ideal conditions.
Irreplaceable genetic resources are being lost. Many of these
native breeds have maintained humans for more than 10,000
years. Their loss is not just a matter of heritage. It’s very much
about our future”.

The process of domestication and the critical importance of breeders and breed societies in shaping the appearance of the
animals that they tend is described by Valerie Porter (1996, Goats of the World):

“Domestication is not simply a matter of taming individual
animals…Domestication involves breeding in captivity for
several generations, so that human beings can select…the
traits within the species that are useful or pleasing to them – in
terms of behaviour,  productivity and general appearance –
and can control such factors as where and when the animals
feed and where they live. That is to say, the animals become
dependent on…human beings…juvenile characteristics  
persist into adulthood: the brain may be smaller, the
senses generally less acute as the dependence
increases….Thus, gradually, different types evolved for
different situations in various localities, formed as much by
the demands of humans as of the environment.” (p.3 & 4)

It is this process of human intervention that created the Boer  goat as we know it today:

“By means of selection white farmers have eliminated throat
tassels, speckled colour, dappled colour and the piebald
markings of the indigenous goats in the modern improved
Boer Goat….The spotted or speckled goats (skilder bokke)
were described by Barrow (1801)…When the goat farmers of
the Eastern Cape started improving the conformation and meat
producing capabilities of the Boer Goat they selected for a red-
head goat with a white body…As a result of this, indigenous
goats of other colours were eliminated or ‘graded up’ with red-
head Boer Goats.”

From Dr. Campbell’s perspective the association of this white body and red head with productivity lead to the virtual
extinction of most of South Africa’s indigenous goats through the wide spread crossbreeding of indigenous goats with
improved Boer goats (and also with Angora goats):

“Eventually only a few flocks of speckled goats
survived….White as well as black farmers claim that the
speckled goats are better adapted to unfavourable extensive
Savannah grazing conditions than Boer Goats. They also
claim that the survival rate of ‘Skilder’ kids is higher than
that of improved Boer Goats. Perhaps extreme
environmental conditions will ensure the survival of this old
historic strain of goats.” (Campbell, p.38)

Dr. Campbell’s insistence on the critical importance of natural selection in the development of the Savannah breed, the
importance of private breeders in preserving the breed and the importance of the environment in dictating the breed
standards are illustrated in the following quotations from his 1995 publication, “The Indigenous Sheep and Goat Breeds of
South Africa”.

“The indigenous white goat stud of Messrs DSU Cilliers and
Sons was started in approximately 1957 from a mixture of
colored indigenous ewes and a white ram….Selection was
aimed at breeding a white heat and parasite resistant
functionally efficient meat producing goat. These white
goats which are kept in a Savannah type camp close to the
Vaal river had to survive under extremely unfavourable
conditions….natural selection…..survival of the fittest,
played a big role in the development of these fertile easy
care heat and drought resistant animals.” (p. 36)

“Three factors – temperature, humidity and light – rule supreme
and in South Africa they are generally stern masters who are
apt to go to extremes, and cause shocks to vegetation and
animal life. Sometimes these shocks are difficult to endure and
therefore indigenous animals are of a definite and
distinctive pattern… (a fundamental standard).
Characteristics and qualities… (of indigenous
game animals)…such as light-footedness, mobility, lively
posture, a short smooth glossy covering of hair…a roomy
loose, relatively thick skin and dark pigmentation; lean long,
shapely flat legs; a lean skull; strong large and well-developed
back, loins and buttock muscles; a slightly hanging rump – all
these are very definitely apparent”. (citing Opperman, p.9,10)

In a video-taped interview with Dr. Campbell in South Africa (B. Payne, Bloemfontein, 1999), he further explains that the
essential difference between Boer goats and the less improved indigenous goats like the Savannah can be seen from specific
conformation traits.  Dr. Campbell concurs with Keith Ramsay’s contention that the Savannah goat is phenotypically
different from the Boer goat. Rather than criticizing the breed for its “slab sides and a tendency towards hockiness”, Dr.
Campbell suggests that like the South African game animals, these are the conformation traits that nature had selected. He
further suggests that if we try to create too round a rib and an animal that is too wide and heavily muscled we “put at risk
the animal’s adaptability. Their hardiness and survivability under unfavourable climactic conditions and their ability to
convert low quality browse into high quality red meat.”

In short, Dr. Campbell states quite emphatically that the Savannah Breed Standard was created by observing survivor
animals in the field NOT by “sitting in a room around a table”. The integrity of the Savannah breed; its distinct appearance
and unique history, is thus firmly tied through the Breed Standard to its proud South African heritage and the demands of
the South African environment. Clearly, preserving this heritage demands an association that adopts the South African

The Savannah Goat in North America:
A Proud Past; An Uncertain Future
Brian Payne, Dr. Frank Pinkerton,
Grapeland, Texas
January 19, 2003

Savannah goats were first imported to North America by Jurgen Schulz early in 1995. The Schulz family had been
engaged in the importation of exotic animals from Africa for many years and the surge of speculative interest in Boer goats
provided the incentive for this business venture. The Savannahs were a small part of a larger shipment of nearly 500
animals which included primarily Boer goats but also some Dorper sheep.

The entire shipment of animals entered the United States through the Truman Quarantine Station in the Florida Keys.
They were released later to a “USDA approved quarantine station near Goldthwaite, Texas” (Ranch and Rural Living,
May, 1995) in May of the same year. The Boer goats became identified as CODI-PCI animals within the American breed
registries and have contributed significantly to the development of the Boer goat in the United States.

Little is known about the production and sale of Savannah goats from the Schulz ranch in the three years following their
importation and quarantine. We do know however, that the entire herd of 34 goats was dispersed through the Kifaru
Exotics Sale Barn in Lampasas, Texas on December 5, 1998.

Almost all of the original South African imports of this pioneering period did not have pedigree information issued through
a central breed registry; an import permit, an embryo certificate, a South African stud number and a sire and dam was all
that was required for registry purposes. The authenticity of the imported livestock was primarily dependent on the stud
breeders’ embryo production records, his reputation in the South African industry and his breeding records (pedigrees).
Reputation and records are still the core criteria in evaluating the authenticity of registered, purebred seed stock today.
However, most of the early pioneers in the Boer goat industry remember the phrase: “If it looks like a Boer …. It is a Boer!”
Many naïve investors bought white goats with a red head and thought they were purchasing a full blood animal. In other
words, in the absence of a credible, centralized registry and breeding records an “exotic goat” can sell for large sums of
money based on phenotype (appearance) alone!

Given the highly heritable nature of white as a color, small numbers of true Savannahs and a poorly organized group of
breeders, will we soon see a wave of white goats put forward as being authentic South African Savannahs?  

The future development of the Savannah breed in North America has several serious challenges to overcome if it is to be

1)        Identifying authentic Schulz foundation stock and their
offspring. This problem has been compounded by the fact that the original Schulz Savannahs were widely dispersed with
no central registry in place to track and record changes in ownership or to document the generations of kids produced from
the original foundation stock. The Pedigree International registry was not established until at least a year and a half after
the Kifaru dispersal (Goat Rancher, August 2000).
2)        Preventing the potentially divisive development of two
classes of Savannahs. Original South African imports   
(Schulz, Keri-Rose, DN Africa) with good documentation as
compared to poorly documented Schulz derivatives.
3)        Most critically, maintaining the integrity of the breed by
setting up a registry that is backed by a DNA verification system in order to separate true descendents of authentic South
African Savannahs from white imposters. Setting up a registry is always a challenge, but in the case of the Savannah goat
in North America, it is like “closing the gate after the horses are already out”!

Clearly, a registry is only as good as the documentation provided by the participating breeders. Is it the registry’s problem
if a new breed is introduced but there is no breed association in place to instruct the registrar on “proper documentation?”
Breed associations are critical to the success of a registry because it is the “association” that defines “foundation stock’ and
sets the criteria for an animal’s entry into the herd book. The association also defines the breed standard and creates the
rules for registry that further refines and develops the breed. Perhaps most importantly, however, the association unifies
breeders and sets ethical standards for conduct in the breeding and sale of purebred livestock.

4)        Given the history outlined above, perhaps the most daunting challenge facing the Savannah breed today is to try
and build the trust and cooperation required for association development with a responsive and credible registry as its

If current Savannah goat breeders are able to overcome these serious impediments to breed recognition in North America,
the breed’s proud South African history and the legacy of the initial Schulz importations and others will shine in North
America, just as the CODI-PCI name has shone in the Boer industry.
Photograph courtesy of Dr. Richard Browning