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Klipspringers ready to make a return

Published May 20, 2004

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The small antelope species finally vanished from Table Mountain more than 70 years ago. Its demise was blamed on several factors, including the hand of man - and now humans seek to restore the buck to its old territory.

At some point during the 1930s, the last of Table Mountain's population of klipspringers died a lonely death.

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Perhaps this antelope was killed by one of the many feral dogs which roamed the mountainside at that stage, or perhaps it ended its life struggling in a snare set by poachers.

It may have been caught by one of the many wildfires which swept the slopes, fuelled by the growing presence of invasive alien trees.

It's also possible that competition from the progeny of a pair of exotic Himalayan tahrs, which escaped from the old Groote Schuur zoo next to the University of Cape Town, played a part.

Whatever the cause, the demise of this little creature was probably unnoticed at the time; certainly, it went unheralded.

Now, 70 years later, the first moves are being made to re-establish the klipspringer population on Table Mountain proper.

In July 1999, the first of a group of 24 klipspringers transferred from the Hottentots Holland nature reserve near Grabouw was released at Cape Point.

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The re-establishment of indigenous species such as klipspringer and grey rhebok has been one of the priorities of the national park since its establishment in 1998.

In a report in November that year on a proposed reintroduction strategy, South Africa National Parks' manager of scientific services, Mike Knight, said the record supported the view that klipspringers had occurred throughout the Peninsula.

In 1772 the visiting Swedish naturalist Anders Sparmann reported seeing this species in the Constantia and Alphen areas. The French naturalist François le Vaillant mentioned seeing them in the Peninsula in 1783.

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In 1980 zoological historian CJ Skead quoted a naturalist reporting that "a few" klipspringers still occurred on Table Mountain in 1930.

"It is apparent that the species was either overlooked owing to its preference for the more inaccessible habitats, or they may not have been common enough to attract attention," Knight said.

"Being naturally a relatively low-density species, occurring in pairs with their immediate young, they could quite easily have been missed and even ignored."

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Knight said klipspringers were particularly vulnerable, particularly when they moved away from refuges on rocky outcrops.

They are vulnerable to large predators such as leopard, caracal (lynx), spotted hyena, baboons, and even some small carnivores, such as black-backed jackal and Verreaux's Eagle (black eagle).

Of these, only caracal and a few pairs of eagles still occur on Table Mountain proper.

"It's reasonable to assume that klipspringers would also have been under pressure from feral domestic dogs in the Cape Town area, not to mention men, who hunted them for their pelts, which they used in saddle stuffing," Knight said.

"They appear to have been under threat in the Cape Peninsula, dwindling in numbers until finally disappearing after 1930."

A key motive for the current operation to remove all the Himalayan tahrs from the mountain is that they would compete with the klipspringer.

"As both the klipspringer and the tahr prefer similar habitats of steep rocky slopes and rocky outcrops, and are mixed feeders - although the klipspringer is predominantly more of a browser - it's expected there would be some degree of competition between the two species," Knight said.

"Ideally, the introduction of klipspringer should also coincide with a campaign to remove tahrs from the area."

He said the Peninsula's ecological carrying capacity for klipspringer could only be guessed at, given the lack of hard information.

However, territory sizes were likely to range between 25 and 35 hectares in the Cape Point area, with its mostly nutrient-poor fynbos vegetation.

Table Mountain, with its higher rainfall, could possibly support smaller klipspringer territories of around 20ha.

This meant areas suitable for the introduction of klipspringers should have rocky habitats, sufficient food, be relatively free of disturbance from man and potential predators such as dogs, and be easy to monitor.

Knight suggested Cape Point and the northern and western slopes of Table Mountain and upper tables offer the best potential sites.

The suitable areas of Table Mountain could carry a maximum of 35 and 40 klipspringer territories, Knight suggested.

At a media conference early this week, Table Mountain National Park manager Brett Myrdal said klipspringers would not be reintroduced on the mountain before all the tahrs had been removed and the vegetation had been given a chance to recover.

Also, the issue of possible hunting by domestic dogs would have to be considered, he added.

"We entirely exterminated our indigenous animals like the klipspringer and rhebok from the mountain, and we did that without any thought as to what the ecological impact would be or what we were denying future generations. We've had an unpleasant past, I don't think we've had a great track record.

"It's time we reconciled ourselves with the damage we've caused to the environment, and it's very important to me to focus our minds on restoring our biodiversity."

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