During the late nineteenth century, a pandemic of rinderpest exterminated large numbers of cattle in Southern Africa. Although in the Bechuanaland Protectorate the disease killed cattle only for two years —between 1896 and 1897, its effects were to last until the very end of the century. The loss of cattle disrupted subsistence production, disintegrated the social fabric and caused famines. I examine the subsistence crisis caused by the loss of cattle and the multiple coping mechanisms that people employed to negotiate the ensuing famine. Despite being thrown into a state of desperation, I argue, rural communities in the Bangwato Reserve appropriated and reconstituted certain features of their cultural and social life to negotiate the ecological shocks, particularly to protect subsistence.