By Julienne du Toit
Photographs by Chris Marais
The quagga was an amazing beast. In old photographs it looks as if two different animals – a horse and a zebra – had been welded together.
It had black and white zebra stripes on its head and shoulders, yet its abdomen and hindquarters were a chocolate mousse colour, and its legs, belly and tail were white. It thrived in the Karoo and high grasslands.
Alas, it was that bemusing skin that cursed it to extinction.
In 1886 the SA government issued an official edict to protect the over-hunted quagga, completely oblivious to the fact that the last one had died all alone at a zoo in Amsterdam a full three years earlier.
Cape mountain zebras, which once co-existed with the quagga, are also handsome beasts. They are the smallest of the zebra tribe, with chocolate-orange muzzles, enormous donkey-like ears, stripes right down to their hooves, and a wattle on their necks.
When they were still fairly plentiful, they attracted the attention of American circus riders, led by a man called Texas Jack, in 1903.
His American cowboy colleagues chased mountain zebras up and down the valleys outside Cradock, through the very area that would later become the national park.
Several were captured; locals gathered with picnic baskets to watch the spectacle.
The most dramatic incident came later when one of the circus riders, Mexican Bill, accepted a bet that he could ride a wild zebra.
Paul Michau, whose farm now forms an integral part of the park, reported that Mexican Bill lassoed one of the untamed zebras, leapt down from his horse’s back, threw a saddle over the zebra “and with great intrepidity”, rode down the mountain side to the homestead.
It was, in Michau’s words, “a feat I would never have deemed possible had I not myself witnessed it”.
A series of co-operative efforts between local Cradock farmers and conservation authorities led to a small herd of mountain zebra being conserved on less than 2 000 hectares of protected land.
Since then, the numbers of mountain zebras in the national park have slowly risen to more than 700 in a much larger park. Many others were translocated, and now more than 300 are also found in other reserves.
Four ecosystems meet within the park – grassland, Nama Karoo, thicket and savanna – allowing for an unusual mix of animals and plants.
But for years it remained a park of minor importance, its land expanding slowly to a paltry 6 500 hectares.
The park’s fortunes changed in 1996, when Dr Anthony Hall-Martin, then director of conservation for South African National Parks (SANParks) talked of the park’s potential to some influential donors.
World famous British wildlife artist David Shepherd donated two of his paintings, and the prints brought in nearly R1.5 million. The National Parks Trust matched the donation, and more land was bought for conservation. The park now sprawls over nearly 29 000 hectares.
This dry mountainland has came into its own, a potential haven for all sorts of threatened species.
In 2007, four cheetahs were introduced to the park, sending shockwaves through the resident antelope population.
The cheetahs settled well and bred up so well that over a dozen have been captured and moved to new homes. The rest are regularly seen. The Park now offers cheetah tracking as one of their activities.
Other predators are mostly nocturnal, sometimes seen on night drives: caracal, wild cat and black-footed cat, termite-eating aardwolf, Cape fox and bat-eared fox. Lions have recently been introduced to the park as well.
Besides these and mountain zebras, you could expect to see eland (the largest antelope in Africa), springbok, buffalo, oryx, blesbok, red hartebeest, black wildebeest and kudu.
Birders can look out for Ludwig’s bustard, the pink-billed lark, rock pipit as well as ground woodpecker.
From being a minor little ‘species park’, the Mountain Zebra National Park has gained real importance for conserving South Africa’s wild heritage.
- For enquiries, call 048 881 2427, or 048 881 3434. For reservations, call 012 428 9111, or visit www.sanparks.org.