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Pictures: Selfies gone wild

Cape Town - They have a reputation for being shy and retiring, but the animals at Cape Point have now joined the rest of the world by posing for a unique set of “selfies”.

And the resulting images prove that they’re just as photogenic… well, almost, as any other species in the animal kingdom, even if their camera skills are sometimes lacking and their facial expressions occasionally a bit wide-eyed and foolish.

SELF PORTRAIT: A seldom-seen Cape Fox with its magnificent brush strolls through a recently burnt part of the Table Mountain National Park near Cape Point. Photo: SA NATIONAL PARKSWHO, ME? A startled Red Hartbeest sets off the flash of a camera trap in the Table Mountain National Park. Photo: SA NATIONAL PARKSSTEPPING OUT: An Eland gives the camera trap a wary look. Photo: SA NATIONAL PARKSSMILE! A pair of curious Jackass Penguins approach a camera trap. Photo: SA NATIONAL PARKS

Actually, these photographs were triggered by the animals themselves in “camera traps” set up over the past three years by conservation managers in the Cape of Good Hope (Cape Point) section of the Table Mountain National Park. And the results have been “an eye-opener”, says Justin Buchmann, senior section ranger for this part of the park.

For example, the camera traps confirmed the continued presence of the Common Duiker that had not been physically seen in the area for the past 10 years, as well as the sometimes surprising movements of Water Mongoose, Cape Clawless Otter, Cape Fox, Grey Rhebuck and Klipspringer.

Other, more common, species recorded by the traps include the Caracal (Rooikat), Eland, Bontebok, Ostrich, Chacma Baboon, Small Grey Mongoose, Large Spotted Genet, Porcupine, Cape Mountain Zebra and Red Hartebeest.

And all too regularly, the cameras also take pictures of perlemoen poachers, sometimes in large groups, moving through the darkness. “This is key intelligence for us,” said Buchmann.

The park maintains floral and faunal inventories of species that occur here and its monitoring programme includes quarterly counts of nocturnal animals, he explains, but even these dedicated night drives don’t pick up all the animal inhabitants.

“Often species start to disappear, like the Common Duiker that was seen regularly during the 1980s and 90s but that hasn’t been seen physically in the last decade. I was thinking it had disappeared…

“And so we started asking ourselves, what was still around and how they utilised the area of the southern peninsula, not just the park? What was influencing the ecological dynamics?”

The easiest and most cost-effective way of updating the animal species inventory is through the use of camera traps, and because they are so non-threatening – the infra-red cameras don’t even flash, so the animals aren’t disturbed in any way – they have the added advantage of recording natural behaviour (some have video capacity) that researchers can follow up on, such as identifying plants the animals are utilising.

The park has six of its own cameras – some were donated – that are moved around regularly, depending on what the managers want to monitor.

For a heady three months, they had the use of 80 camera traps as part of the UCT-based MammalMAP’s Cape Peninsula Mammal Atlas Project, and the park staff have access to the images and data recorded during this time.

One key record was that of the water mongoose feeding on the critically endangered Rose’s Mountain Toadlet that breeds in just two small areas in the peninsula, one of them in the park.

“We would never have picked up something like this without camera observation, and we’ve now put in wire cages over the breeding site as a mechanism to protect the eggs and tadpoles,” Buchmann explained.

The use of camera traps had also thrown up some puzzles and anomalies, he added.

“There’s one small area of the park, only about 2km2 or 3km2, that is absolutely flat and featureless. But just about every species seems to come here, to congregate, and then to disperse – Bontebok, Eland… Why? We’ve scratched our heads and we still don’t know the answer.”

John Yeld, Cape Argus

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