Karoo Road Trip - Mountain Zebra National Park
Cape Mountain Zebra - the reason the park was proclaimed in 1937.
The second protected area on my Karoo road trip was Mountain Zebra National Park in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. It’s one of my favourite. It’s small – only about 280 square kilometres, but its crammed with beautiful rolling hills covered in grass, and the high plateau of the Bankberg mountains.
Gemsbok and Karoo plains
The conservation of the South African endemic Cape Mountain Zebra is a remarkable success story.
By the late 1800s, hunters had wiped out most of these mountain-adapted animals – a separate species to the more common Burchell’s zebra, which is commonly found in savanna regions of Africa. By 1937 when the park was proclaimed, there were just a handful of them in the Eastern Cape. Six of them (five male and one female) were the founding population of the park. These almost died off, and eleven more were found on a neighbouring farm and brought into the reserve. From this small population, today there are more than 750 in the park.
This is just one of the original three mountain zebra populations in South Africa – the other two are Kammanassie and Gamkaberg Nature Reserves in the Western Cape, but these are smaller populations than those at Mountain Zebra National Park.
Although it’s part of the Karoo semi-arid region, Mountain Zebra NP receives about 25% more rainfall than the average, and the grasslands can support a high number of herbivores like black wildebeest, hartebeest, kudu, gemsbok and eland. Because the open landscapes – without many trees – give unimpeded views, you’re guaranteed of seeing something while you’re there.
Black wildebeest and youngster
The biggest predator is the cheetah. Unique among the national parks, visitors at Mountain Zebra can sign up for a cheetah tracking walk. Early in the mornings, a ranger guides you to the cheetahs, some of which have GPS and radio collars.
Field guide Michael Paxton took me out one morning, and we got to within about ten metres of a female cheetah. She was very relaxed, and quite habituated to people, clearly, because she wasn’t perturbed in the slightest by our presence. When we approached her, she simply lay down in the shade and started to snooze!
The female cheetah that allowed us to get within about ten metres - on our tracking walk with field guide Michael Paxton.
I’m not sure if it was the “wildest” animal interaction I’ve experienced, but I imagine that if you’re not used to being in the company of wild cats, then the cheetah walk must be exhilarating.
But the cheetahs won’t be kings of the park for long. According to park manager Megan Taplin, lions are about to be introduced in the next few months, so that will surely disrupt the predator hierarchy. And once again, it will be good to have another population of protected lions in the country, because there aren’t many of them left in the wild in Africa.
I had a great time photographing some ground squirrels, whose burrow I found alongside a 4×4 track. I spent an hour watching them standing at the entrance to the burrow, scurrying around and keeping a watch for raptors and other predators. It was fantastic.
My friends the ground squirrels
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