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.
Keep your eyes peeled
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 air-conditioned stress. He also knows that I have travelled close to 1 800km 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 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 saddle-straps. 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 critically-endangered species was reclassified in 2016 as no longer under threat of extinction. But, sadly, there is a catch to this success story.
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We’re not out of the woods yet
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.
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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.”
Where to Stay
Gamkaberg Nature Reserve is 33 kilometres from Oudtshoorn or 32 kilometres from Calitzdorp in the Klein Karoo. There are three eco-lodges with safari-style tents on decks, each with a splash pool, a kitchen/lounge area and adjacent lapa. Keen hikers with 4x4s can access the more remote Oukraal stone shelter lodge surrounded by four herder’s huts.
For more information
044 203 6300, [email protected]
021 483 0190, CapeNature
Words Tony Carnie
Photography Tony Carnie; Supplied
A journalist by trade, features writer on occasion and now the digital editor of SA Country Life. The first chance she gets, Leigh will tell you about a podcast she was recently listening to and how you simply have to make the move from radio. In a previous life, she once taught English on Jeju which left her with an insatiable craving for kimchi.