Endangered species back from the edge

John Yeld

When the minister of lands, General Jan Kemp, was asked in 1936 to set aside a special reserve for the endangered Cape mountain zebra, he gave his now infamous reply: "No! They're just a lot of donkeys in football jerseys."

Fortunately for this species, the grumpy general was eventually persuaded otherwise, and the Mountain Zebra National Park at Cradock was established in 1938.

It was almost too late.

Hunting was uncontrolled and the Cape mountain zebra - like its relative, the quagga, before it - was a popular victim.

Between the 1920s and 1950s, the Cape mountain zebra population dropped from more than 400 to a low of just 91 and the species seemed on its way to extinction.

In 1938 there were only six zebra in the Cradock park and for 13 years there was no increase. Then in 1950, a local farmer donated his herd of 11 animals to the park and the tide turned.

By 1984, numbers had increased to slightly more than 400 and today there is cautious optimism with the estimated total population at about 1 200.

Natural populations of Cape mountain zebra survive in three conservation areas: at Cradock and the provincial nature reserves at Gamkaberg and Kamanassie - both in the Oudtshoorn district - and small herds have been established elsewhere by moving "surplus" animals.

Although the Cape mountain zebra has become a conservation success story, experts like Peter Lloyd of Cape Nature Conservation's Scientific Services section warn that the species is still at risk.

"There are currently about 13 formally conserved populations - that is, in state conservation departments - and that is too small a number to guarantee survival of the species," Lloyd said.

It only needed an event similar to an outbreak of African horse sickness - the zebra is immune to this particular disease, although it is a carrier - to have a potentially disastrous effect, he explained.

This was why private conservation efforts were essential and why efforts to save an individual animal like Spot were worthwhile.

"The more genetic viability there is overall, the more likely the population is to survive a catastrophic event," Lloyd said.

"So the ideal is to maintain the separate natural populations as far as possible, and develop new, mixed 'satellite' populations elsewhere."

In the northern Cederberg, there is now a breeding herd of 28 Cape mountain zebra on the six farms which have been consolidated into the Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve.

"It's probably the largest privately owned herd of Cape mountain zebra," said reserve proprietor Mark McAdam.

"We wanted to do something here for conservation, not only for the animals, but also for the cultural history and plant life of the region.

"Our mission is to restore it to what it was. The Cape mountain zebra, which was next in line after the quagga to become extinct, symbolises all that.

"Quite simply, it's been brought back from the edge."

The reserve can't sustain a population of more than 50 Cape mountain zebra at the most.

"What we're trying to do is to establish a relatively large population that other nature reserves can draw from," McAdam said.

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