Going wild at the southern tip of Africa

Posted by Scott Ramsay on 9 November 2011

There were once rhinos at the southern-most tip of Africa. And elephants. And hippos. And buffalos. And lions. In fact, the area around Cape Agulhas – known as the strandveld (literally ‘sandy land’ in Afrikaans, due to its sandy soils) – was rich in wildlife. So much so that it was apparently known to early hunters as the Serengeti of the south.

For our last two days in Agulhas National Park, we moved inland from the main rest camp on the coast to Renosterkop – a collection of three quaint old renovated thatch cottages which can be rented individually. Renosterkop used to be an old farm, but it was one of several that South African National Parks bought to augment Agulhas National Park’s ecological footprint.

Renosterkop means ‘rhino’s head in Afrikaans, and like several other names in the area, it hints at the abundant wildlife that once roamed here. Elandsdrif, Fisantekraal, Buffeljags, Ratelriviersberg…these are all evocative Afrikaans names … Eland’s Crossing, Pheasant Shelter, Buffalo Hunt, Honey Badger River Mountain – like the rest of Southern Africa, the area is rich in wildlife heritage. But then the colonial hunters arrived, and most of the wild animals were hunted out.

We stopped by the farm Springfield to visit Piet van As, who has lived in the area for most of his life, and who came across a rhino skull in the dunes near Brandfontein, just to the south of the farm. ‘It’s probably a white rhino’s skull, at least several hundred years old,’ Piet explained. ‘There probably weren’t any black rhinos, as there aren’t enough trees in the strandveld for them to browse off. But there’s plenty of grass, so the grazing white rhinos were probably quite common.’

It’s quite a thought – imagine strolling along the beach and bumping into a rhino on the grassy edge. Or hearing hippos grunt in any of the many vleis (‘lakes’ in Afrikaans) which characterize so much of the strandveld. (The last hippo in the area was shot at Zeekoeivlei in 1898 – Zeekoeivlei means Hippo Lake).

It’s a melancholic thought to think that never again will anyone in this area see herds of thousands of antelope, followed by a variety of predators like lions, leopards and perhaps cheetahs … that today the land around Agulhas is bedecked in farm land. It’s still a beautiful area…but like the rest of South Africa, so little of our wild – and cultural – heritage is left intact (what of the strandlopers, or the San, or the Khoi … their languages and their heritage is largely confined to history books.)

So the Agulhas National Park has a big role to play – and in effect is trying to reverse man’s overbearing footprint, albeit in a relatively small area. And the surrounding farmers are getting involved too, forming a co-operative association with the national park called the Nuwejaars Wetlands Special Management Area. This organization includes 25 landowners in the Overberg district who are collectively managing their land for conservation, while promoting sustainable agriculture. Members have had title deed restrictions signed against their properties to ensure conservation principles are followed.

Farmer Dirk Human from Black Oystercatcher Wines – the chairman of the SMA – is currently reintroducing buffalo into the Agulhas area, and the first buffalo calf was born just two weeks ago – the first to be born in the area for more than 200 years.

‘Aside from buffalo, we’ve also reintroduced hippo, last seen here some 150 years ago,’ Dirk explained in a local newsletter. ‘We’re slowly moving towards bringing back the natural systems as they existed in previous centuries.’

Then there’s the hopeful and reassuring story of the bontebok. This endemic antelope was only ever found in the strandveld. It occurs naturally nowhere else on earth. In 1689 Isaq Schryver wrote in his journal that he encountered a herd of at least 1 000 bontebok near Bot River, a hundred kilometres north west of Agulhas. He wasn’t the only one to note their ubiquity. Several travellers and scientists remarked on how many there were. And I guess the hunters did too. By 1837, only a few small herds of Bontebok remained. In that year, the farmer Alexander van Bijl rounded up the last 27 bontebok on earth, and kept them protected on his farm. Some were released onto neighbouring farms.

By 1927 there were only 77 bontebok left. The government came to its senses, and in 1931 declared a farm just south of Bredasdorp as the Bontebok National Park. This was the original location of the national park which now is further north near Swellendam (and which we are visiting in two weeks time). It was moved to Swellendam, because of the numerous parasite-infested vleis in the area of Bredasdorp which negatively affected breeding.

It’s an important lesson for conservation. So often we think we should leave it to government to solve  the country’s conservation challenges, but if it wasn’t for those farmers way back in the 1920s, the Bontebok would now be sitting as a stuffed animal in the museums alongside the extinct Bloubok and Quagga.

And today, farmers are at the forefront again, introducing buffalo and hippo to the area. And who knows…hopefully one day we may see a rhino at the southern-most tip of Africa one day, trundling through the strandveld like it did for thousands of years before the hunters arrived.

Thanks again to my sponsors for making it all possible. CapeNature, South African National Parks, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Eastern Cape Parks, iSimangaliso Wetland ParkFord, Total, Evosat, Conqueror TrailersVodacom, Digicape, Lacie, Frontrunner, K-Way, EeziAwnNational Luna, Nokia , Goodyear, Global Fleet Sales, Hetzner and Clearstream Consulting.


Read more about my Year in the Wild here.

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