History of rich animal life reprinted

Published Aug 1, 2011


“So you’re from Africa? Do you have lions and elephants walking around in your streets?” “No, but we used to have…” At some point in their journeys, nearly all South Africans travelling abroad will be subjected to idiotic questions about the country’s wildlife by ignorant foreigners.

But it wasn’t that long ago that lions, elephants and many other wild animals were in fact still walking around just about the whole of South Africa, even if there weren’t streets as such – and that includes the Cape Peninsula, Cape Flats and all the rest of the area that now makes up metropolitan Cape Town.

While the indigenous San and Khoekhoe had obviously lived alongside these beasts for millennia, the first written records are only from the 17th century when the early European sailors ventured past the Cape en route to the East.

In March 1609, for example, Dutchman Cornelis Claesz van Purmerendt wrote of the Peninsula: “There are many lions there, against which they (the Khoekhoe) sometimes wage war.”

An Englishman, Thomas Best, called at the Cape in July 1627 and later recorded: “During the the night they (the Khoekhoe) sleepe around a fire in the open fields to secure them from their watchfull and hungry neighbours, the lions… In the darke weather the lions use subtilty to catch and eat the savages… In the daytime they (the Khoehoe) digge pits, cover them with boughs, and traine the couragious lions thither where they receive destruction.”

Interestingly, Jan van Riebeeck does not refer anywhere in his extensive 10-year journal to seeing elephants on the Peninsula. But there is a record of an elephant being shot in the “Tiger Valley”, probably only some 10km north of the Castle, in March 1702.

And earlier, one John Jourdain went ashore at Rietvlei, just north of present-day Milnerton, and later wrote: “It is to be understood that this river is a mile from the place where the ships doe water… In this journey up the river we saw many estreges (ostriches) and footings of elephants, much fish and fowle, etc…”

Similarly, despite a handful of unconfirmed reports, it appears there were no buffalo at the Cape, at least from Van Riebeeck’s time, and their nearest documented presence was near Caledon .

These early reports and many others about the Cape’s rich animal life have been published in various sources over the years, but nowhere have they been as comprehensively brought together as by naturalist CJ “Jack” Skead in his famous Historical Incidence of the Larger Land Mammals in the Cape Province: Volume 1 – the Western and Northern Cape of 1980, and its companion volume describing the larger land mammals of the Eastern Cape.

Now, revised versions of both these books have been published by the Centre for African Conservation Ecology at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth.

“The revision and republication of CJ Skead’s two volumes is in line with the growing realisation that an understanding of the past is essential for wise planning for the future,” explains Professor Graham Kerley, the centre’s director, who has edited the books with colleague Dr Andre Boshoff and CapeNature mammal expert Dr Peter Lloyd.

In their foreword, they explain how Skead started his adult life as an Eastern Cape sheep farmer, and even then began publishing items on the natural history and ecology of birds.

After serving in World War II, he was appointed director of the Kaffrarian (now Amathole) Museum in 1950 and developed his second career as an ornithologist, at the museum and at UCT’s FitzPatrick Institute.

Then, after retiring in 1972, he spent the next 34 years before his death in 2006 aged 94 gathering and synthesising information from historical records, both on the ecology and early distribution of mammals, birds and plants, and also on place names and their history.

Skead produced a suite of 14 books containing “invaluable historical information that would otherwise have been lost”, say the editors. “A particular strength of these works is that they are founded on Jack’s intimate knowledge of the landscapes, places and local languages.”

The best known of these 14 books are the two volumes on the larger land mammals, ranging from the aardwolf and the aardvark (ant-eater) through to the wild dog, wildebeest and zebra.

They’ll provide all the answers you’ll need for questions, serious or silly, such as how long leopards survived on the Cape Peninsula (they still occurred from Hout Bay to Newlands in the 1830s) or whether there were spotted hyenas here (yes, they were common) or how the dassie got its name (probably from the Dutch name for stone badger, “steen-daschen”, although this species actually bears no relation at all to the European badger).

l For more about the books, contact Professor Kerley at 041 504 2308 or email [email protected] - Cape Argus

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