Search­ing for the Gamka Ze­bras

South African Country Life - - In This Issue - PIC­TURES TONY CARNIE AND SUP­PLIED

… the spe­cial moun­tain ze­bras that al­most went ex­tinct COVER STORY

We are driv­ing up a rocky and dev­il­ishly steep pass in the Gamk­aberg (lion moun­tains) of the Lit­tle Ka­roo, when CapeNa­ture wildlife war­den Tom Barry tells me the story about a trig­ger-happy farmer, who came close to wip­ing out the great-great grand­par­ents of the very crea­tures we are hunt­ing.

To be sure, we are look­ing for them rather than hunt­ing them – but the lat­ter seems more ap­pro­pri­ate con­sid­er­ing there are only about 25 of these rare an­i­mals in this vast moun­tain haystack, close to the os­trich town of Oudt­shoorn.

We are search­ing for ze­bras. Not your com­mon plains ze­bra that lions feast on in Na­tional Ge­o­graphic doc­u­men­taries, but the very spe­cial Cape moun­tain ze­bra (Equus ze­bra ze­bra), a dis­tinct sub-species of the striped don­key that very nearly joined the ranks of the ex­tinct quagga, dodo and pas­sen­ger pi­geon just 80 years ago.

Moun­tain ze­bras are slightly smaller than their sa­van­nah cousins and their coat pat­tern is quite dif­fer­ent. They have much brighter and ‘cleaner’ black and white py­ja­mas be­cause there are no shadow mark­ings in be­tween the stripes. Found only in South Africa, they have a dis­tinc­tive pat­tern above their tails.

Tom, who man­ages the Gamk­aberg Na­ture Re­serve, has spent a quar­ter of a cen­tury pro­tect­ing these unique an­i­mals. A se­ri­ous man, he has sev­eral patches of grey in his closely-cropped hair, but there is still that youth­ful twin­kle in his eyes that seems to set apart many of the sun-baked field men from the head-of­fice work­ers who toil in air­con­di­tioned stress. He also knows that I have trav­elled close to 1 800 kilo­me­tres to see these pe­cu­liar moun­tain ze­bras.

So now, as we twist and turn and bump along up Law­son’s Pass in the Gamk­aberg re­serve, he does not rate our chances of find­ing Equus ze­bra ze­bra at much be­yond 20 per cent in this 40 000-hectare moun­tain wilder­ness.

“You’ve come a long way, but there are never any guar­an­tees that you will see them. The ze­bras could be any­where and there are places that we just can­not get to by road.

Maybe we can lo­cate some of their foot­prints for you…?” he sug­gests.

The vis­i­tors don’t com­ment and, as we con­tinue to scan the rugged moun­tain land­scape, Tom re­turns to the story about the farmer. It hap­pened in 1974, just af­ter the re­serve

Once Crit­i­cally En­dan­gered but no longer un­der threat, the Cape moun­tain ze­bra’s re­cov­ery is re­mark­able. But in the Gamk­aberg TONY CARNIE dis­cov­ers the catch

to this story

was pro­claimed to pro­tect some of the last moun­tain ze­bras left in the world. But just weeks be­fore the new re­serve had been fenced off, a lo­cal farmer driv­ing a VW Bee­tle came in and shot seven ze­bra in a sin­gle af­ter­noon (more than half of the es­ti­mated 13 sur­viv­ing an­i­mals in the Gamk­aberg).

“Ze­bras have strong leather so he prob­a­bly turned their skins into grain bags or sad­dlestraps. That left only six an­i­mals in this park – and then one of them died from nat­u­ral causes, so we were left with five. It wasn’t a very good start.”

For­tu­nately, there were two other small

moun­tain ze­bra pop­u­la­tions that had been fenced in else­where in the Cape – about 19 an­i­mals in the Moun­tain Ze­bra Na­tional Park near Crad­dock in 1937, and another five an­i­mals in Kam­manassie Na­ture Re­serve in 1978.

The odds were stacked heav­ily against the sur­vivors, yet the story about their re­cov­ery ranks among South Africa’s great­est achieve­ments in pro­tect­ing bi­o­log­i­cal di­ver­sity.

In the 1950s it was es­ti­mated that there were just 60 moun­tain ze­bras left in the world. To­day there are more than 5 000 that have been spread out and have mul­ti­plied in 75 state, pro­vin­cial and pri­vate re­serves. The re­cov­ery was so re­mark­able that this for­merly crit­i­cal­lyen­dan­gered species was re­clas­si­fied in 2016 as no longer un­der threat of ex­tinc­tion. But, sadly, there is a catch to this suc­cess story.

CapeNa­ture sci­en­tist Co­ral Birss says more than 95 per cent of the cur­rent

5 000-plus pop­u­la­tion is de­scended from the Crad­dock pop­u­la­tion alone. Be­cause all three sub-pop­u­la­tions (Crad­dock, Kam­manassie and Gamk­aberg) are se­ri­ously in­bred, with low ge­netic vari­a­tion, mam­mal ex­perts have rec­om­mended that the gene pool be strength­ened by ‘mix­ing’ their blood lines un­der con­trolled con­di­tions.

The Gamk­aberg ze­bras – the ones we are still search­ing for – are very spe­cial in that their unique genes have never been mixed with ei­ther the Crad­dock or Kam­manassie pop­u­la­tions.

Birss ex­plains that the smaller the pop­u­la­tion size, the faster the ge­netic di­ver­sity is lost. “With just 25 here, there is a se­ri­ous risk

of los­ing one third of the re­main­ing global gene pool. Be­cause the pop­u­la­tion is so small and iso­lated, the chance of find­ing a suit­able mate be­comes more dif­fi­cult,” she says, not­ing that the Gamk­aberg re­pro­duc­tion rate has de­clined to about one per cent a year, com­pared to about ten per cent in the other two pop­u­la­tions.

There are other wor­ry­ing signs. The sex-ra­tio of the Gamk­aberg ze­bras is more skewed to­wards males, and some an­i­mals have de­vel­oped sar­coid tu­mours (lumps on the skin linked to ge­netic in­breed­ing).

Birss feels it is now “crit­i­cal” to re­lo­cate a small num­ber of stal­lions to a new re­serve where they can mix for the first time with mares from the other two pop­u­la­tions.

She has just started to elab­o­rate when wildlife ranger Cor­nelius Julius cries out that he has spot­ted some of the ze­bras. He points to a spot pos­si­bly two kilo­me­tres or more to our left.

“Over there. Do you see where the farthest dark moun­tain touches the closer moun­tain? Just look a bit fur­ther to the left where there is a bush on the horizon... Then look a bit lower down. That’s where they are.”

I squint into the dis­tance but can’t see any­thing that looks re­motely like a ze­bra.Tom passes me a pair of binoc­u­lars and ex­plains the lo­ca­tion more care­fully. “Can you see them now?”

I squint again, peer­ing even more care­fully. Per­haps there is some­thing there, if I use my imag­i­na­tion. Some of my col­leagues cry out, “Yes. Yes. There they are. There’re about four of them.” Another ranger holds up seven fin­gers to in­di­cate how many he has spot­ted. So I mum­ble, “Yes”. But not with great con­vic­tion, be­cause I can’t re­ally see them.

We re­main watch­ing those dis­tant ze­bras for another twenty min­utes or so, be­fore Tom sig­nals that he is well-sat­is­fied to have found so many, and that it is time to head back to camp.

We jump back onto the bakkies and start head­ing slowly down­hill, although I’m not cer­tain that this counted as a sight­ing. Then, hey presto, about ten min­utes later Tom points to our right. He has seen some more. I fol­low his hand sig­nals down to a rocky slope – and “Yes!”

This time I can see them clearly, even with­out binoc­u­lars. There are three of them, cam­ou­flaged re­mark­ably well in this grey, rocky en­vi­ron­ment, de­spite the stark con­trast be­tween their pure black and white stripes.

Later, as we exit the re­serve, Tom points to a 10 000-hectare par­cel of low-ly­ing land that was added to the bound­aries of Gamk­aberg re­cently, with fi­nan­cial sup­port from the con­ser­va­tion group WWF South Africa.

“Re­mem­ber that farmer I was telling you about? Well, he was buried just over that ridge when he died. And now that the re­serve has been ex­panded, the ze­bras can walk right over his grave.”

ABOVE: Un­like the more com­mon plains ze­bra, the Cape moun­tain ze­bra has an or­ange muz­zle and no shadow stripes. The stripes ex­tend all the way down the belly and hooves. These an­i­mals also have a unique pat­tern on their backs, just above the tail. (Photo Cor­nelius Julies) TOP RIGHT: Law­son’s Pass in the Gamk­aberg re­serve twists and turns for sev­eral kilo­me­tres be­fore reach­ing Bak­en­skop, 1 105 me­tres above sea level. ABOVE RIGHT: CapeNa­ture wildlife war­den Tom Barry has de­vel­oped a deep at­tach­ment to Gamk­aberg, where he has been based for 24 years. BE­LOW LEFT: There are some pre­cip­i­tous drops next to the main view site at Gamk­aberg.BE­LOW RIGHT: These fos­silised sea shells are be­lieved to be more than 300-mil­lion years old.

ABOVE: The wooden view­ing plat­form on Law­son’s Pass has spec­tac­u­lar views of the sur­round­ing moun­tains, which also pro­vide habi­tat for leop­ards, jackal, cara­cal, ba­boons and sev­eral an­te­lope species. (Photo Ru­dolph de Gi­rardier) TOP RIGHT: Be­cause the ze­bras of Gamk­aberg have re­mained in an is­land pop­u­la­tion for over four decades, CapeNa­ture re­searcher Co­ral Birss is anx­ious to en­sure that the unique genes of these an­i­mals are not lost. ABOVE RIGHT: Ranger Cor­nelius Julies mon­i­tors the ze­bra pop­u­la­tion al­most daily and can iden­tify each an­i­mal from its in­di­vid­ual coat pat­tern and other unique fea­tures.

LEFT: Hik­ers in the Gamk­aberg pass through a va­ri­ety of habi­tats, from fyn­bos-rich moun­tain plateau to deep, forested ravines. (Photo Ru­dolph de Gi­rardier)

ABOVE LEFT: Deeply-in­cised ravines host a rich va­ri­ety of flora, from aloes to fyn­bos. (Photo Ru­dolph de Gi­rardier) TOP RIGHT: The re­serve has three rus­tic eco-lodges, each with a splash pool. ABOVE: Yes! There are three of them, cam­ou­flaged re­mark­ably well in the grey, rocky en­vi­ron­ment.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.