In Search Of Striped Unicorns

The Gamkaberg in the Little Karoo is home to a small population of Cape mountain zebras which have an important role to play in the future of their species, writes Andrea Weiss.

Field ranger Willem Goemas expertly navigates the bakkie up the steep, rocky pass that leads to the mountain stronghold of the isolated Gamkaberg Nature Reserve near Oudtshoorn in the Little Karoo. The son of a goat herder, he grew up on a nearby farm and joined CapeNature, the Western Cape’s provincial nature conservation authority, as a 20-year-old. Now aged 43, these steep slopes, precipitous valleys and the panoramic views of the mountains of the southern Cape are as familiar to him as the back of his hand resting lightly on the steering wheel.

As he drives, Goemas points out the landmarks. A dip between two identical peaks in the distance: That is the Swartberg Pass. A dry patch over there is where the Gouritz River gorge separates the Outeniqua mountains from the Langeberg. And, off in the distance, that’s the Kammanassie mountains.

This was one of the last refuges of the Cape mountain zebra, which was once numerous throughout the Cape Floral Kingdom. By the early 20th Century only about 60 animals remained, isolated in three populations in Cradock (now the Mountain Zebra National Park), here at Gamkaberg and Kammanassie (the latter now both managed by CapeNature).

Through concerted conservation efforts, their numbers have climbed back up to 6 000 animals (marginally higher than that of black rhinos) and their status has been downgraded from endangered to vulnerable in 2004 and to least concern in 2016. The risks remain, however, and include habitat fragmentation, hybridisation with the more common Plains (or Burchell’s) zebra and inbreeding.

And it is here in the Gamkaberg that the motherload of Cape mountain zebras can be found – a tiny population of “no fewer than 25” that, because of their isolation from other herds, hold a third of the entire gene pool for their species. According to CapeNature ecologist, Coral Birss, the pressure is on to have their genes sampled and move some of the stallions to maintain the genetic health of the species.

Joining the dots

What point, some may ask, is there in saving a species if there is nowhere for it to roam, especially when there are so many other human needs? The answer lies in a global enterprise, supported by WWF internationally, to secure resilient ecosystems that provide us with what is often called the “natural capital” that humanity depends on.

These natural systems are our lifeblood, providing water from the mountains, creating jobs through activities such as sustainable tourism, and putting food on our tables. There is an added responsibility of looking after a biodiversity treasure trove that is the Little Karoo, home to rare vegetation types and unique animal species like the Cape mountain zebra.

To this end, WWF South Africa and CapeNature have been working hand-in-hand to stitch together conservation corridors that will give the unique plants and animals of the region, and the people who depend on them, a fighting chance, even in the face of climate change.

Much of this work is being done through protected area expansion. One of the mechanisms is a system of stewardship which provides for voluntary land management agreements between land owners and conservation management agencies, which aims to preserve biodioversity while keeping the land productive. A three-year pilot project funded through the Leslie Hill Succulent Karoo Trust, for example, has helped bring an additional 45 615 hectares in the Little Karoo into conservation.

This Biodiversity Stewardship Programme has also been good for the zebras of the Gamkaberg, where WWF has secured about 9 502 hectares to expand their grassy fynbos habitat to enhance their breeding prospects and secure their precious genetic line. In particular, a 1 000-hectare piece of old farmland close to the southern entrance has provided much-needed lowland grazing at a time when their numbers are perilously low.

Where’s Wally?

But finding the Gamkaberg zebras is no easy task in the rugged terrain of this reserve. Before setting off, senior field ranger Cornelius Julies put our chances at about 20%, and to make matters worse there’s a nippy wind which tends to drive the animals into the shelter of the deep gorges.

Willem and his fellow zebra spotters have keen eyes, though, and as the road begins to wind down towards the southern end of the reserve, they spot some zebras grazing high against a rocky slope – almost impossible to make out. Our luck improves just a few kilometres down the road, when we see another small group of three zebras grazing in a valley below, but even so they are remarkably well camouflaged in this environment. Nevertheless, 11 out of 25 is not a bad tally.

All day long, Willem has been calling out the names of the valleys and peaks of the Gamkaberg. There’s Merrie se Kloof (mare’s gorge) which has beautiful rock paintings, he says.  Above us, where we spot the first herd, is Sebrarug (zebra ridge), and now, as we approach the southern gate, we are driving through an area called Perdebont (pied horses).

Author Robert MacFarlane writes in his book Landmark that the names embedded in wild places are an important part of our collective memory and influence the way we think about nature. “Words are grained into our landscapes and landscapes grained into our words.”  A day on the trail in the Gamkaberg in the company of a man whose livelihood rests on it has shown me how this iconic and elusive zebra species of the Cape has left its spoor firmly in the language of this landscape.

Long may these striped unicorns of the Little Karoo, and all the people who depend on them, live on!

Separating out the stripes

The Cape mountain zebra is endemic to South Africa and is a subspecies of mountain zebra Equus zebra, which historically occurred in the mountains of the Great Escarpment from the south west of Angola, through Namibia, the Northern Cape of South Africa, and the Cape Fold mountains in the Western and Eastern Cape provinces. Gradual separation over time resulted in two distinct subspecies, namely the Hartmann’s mountain zebra Equus zebra hartmannae to the north and Cape mountain zebra to the south.

You tell Cape mountain zebras apart from the more common Plains (or Burchell’s) zebra, which you can see in the Kruger National Park, by the white belly and stripes all the way to its hoof. It also has a square flap of skin at the throat, known as a dewlap, which is more prominent in the males. It is the smallest of the zebra species.

Land stewardship wins in the Little Karoo

The vast majority of the rich biological diversity of the Little Karoo lies outside of formally protected areas. Through contractual stewardship arrangements with landowners more of this bounty can be protected for future generations. These agreements have led to:

  • The protection of important populations of threatened succulent plants, such as the critically endangered bababoudjie (Gibbaeum nebrownii) and tongblaarvygie (Glottiphyllum cruciatum)
  • The conservation of habitat for animal species such as the Cape mountain zebra
  • Reduced pressure on natural areas by providing eco-friendly alternatives, such as supplying Wonderbags to local women to lessen the need for firewood
  • Job creation through initiatives such a spekboom planting project, which created 7 618 days of work for unemployed people
  • Building positive relationships between conservation management agencies and landowners
  • Providing information for landowners on issues such as alien plant control and erosion repair
  • Expanding protected areas and building critically important biodiversity corridors
Image: ©Shutterstock - 15877429

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