In 1903, an unlikely wildlife photograph was published, showing a rather blasé baboon seated on the rump of a crestfallen mountain zebra in the town of Port Elizabeth.
Then came word that a circus rider called Mexican Bill (who came to South Africa in the company of Texas Jack) had managed to lasso himself such a rare mountain zebra in the Bankberge outside Cradock, and actually rode it down to the plains below.
Those were the days when zebras were something of a fashion accessory. In London they were even spanned in as fancy carriage horses. But zebras – even the kindly, orange-muzzled mountain variety – have minds of their own. Ask the zookeepers of this world, many of whom bear zebra bite marks.
A Close Shave with Extinction
But by the mid-1930s, it was clear that the mountain zebra – endemic only to South Africa – was heading the way of the dodo and quagga. It was fast losing ground to livestock herds. In 1937, however, conservation authorities set aside 1 712 hectares outside Cradock to form the seed area of what would become the Mountain Zebra National Park.
Right at the outset, failure seemed inevitable. The herd consisted of five males and one female, and by 1950, all had died except for two old males. Once again, a local farmer came to the rescue, this time Mr H L Lombard of the neighbouring farm Waterval. He donated 11 mountain zebras in exchange for some blesbok.
Since then, the numbers of mountain zebras in the national park have slowly risen above 700. Many were translocated, and now more than 400 are also found in other reserves.
It is a beautiful park, sprawled across the bulky Bankberg mountain range outside Cradock. The valleys are green with sweet thorn trees so loved by kudu. Rooiplaat plateau has sweeping views, mountain zebra and black wildebeest cropping the sweetveld grasses.
Four ecosystems meet within the park – Nama Karoo, thicket, grassland and savanna – allowing for an unusual mix of animals and plants.
In the late 1990s, eminent British wildlife artist David Shepherd donated two paintings worth more than R1 million so the park could be expanded.
South African National Parks (SANParks) matched his donation, plus those of others, and bought nine farms. The Mountain Zebra National Park now sprawls over 29 000 hectares.
This dry mountainland has came into its own, a potential haven for all sorts of threatened species.
Lions and LBJs
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.
More recently, lions were released in the park.
Other predators are mostly nocturnal, sometimes seen on night drives: caracal, wild cat and black-footed cat, termite-eating aardwolf, brown hyena, Cape fox and bat-eared fox.
Besides these and mountain zebras, you could expect to see eland (the largest antelope in Africa), springbok, buffalo, gemsbok, blesbok, red hartebeest, black wildebeest and kudu.
Birders can look out for Ludwig’s bustard, the pink-billed lark, rock pipit, orange-breasted rockjumper and 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.
Future plans include linking the Camdeboo National Park near Graaff-Reinet via a corridor that includes private land and protects the endemic plant species of the Sneeuberg.
- Contact the park on 048 881 2427 / 3434 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.