Text and Pics by Chris Marais
It doesn’t rain much around Beaufort West, but when it does, it often comes in the form of fast-rushing water.
The recent rains in the Karoo, it seems, made a hole in part of the fence that keeps all the critters in the Karoo National Park in.
And that’s how a 3-year-old resident lion is said to have escaped westwards and onto a neighbouring farm.
The farmer found lion tracks on his property sometime on Friday, June 5. Lion bait was set for the predator – and ignored. Instead, the lion celebrated his new-found freedom by taking out new fewer than 8 of the farmer’s sheep.
By Thursday, June 11, a squad of trackers and a helicopter were combing the area in search of the escaped cat, which had already moved more than 20km from the park in the general direction of Fraserburg.
If you know that area, you’ll also know that it’s perfect country for a lion to hide in. The land is tawny, rocky and, in many parts, difficult to access.
The escaped lion has become a social media hit, trending very high on Twitter and featuring in regular updates on the Karoo National Park’s Facebook page.
Home of the Ancient Cape Lion
And there certainly were many lions once in the Karoo. The nearby village of Leeu Gamka (both words in its name mean ‘lion’) seems to have been Predator Central, with explorers often mentioning attacks or having to build bonfires to fend off their unwanted feline attentions.
Leading the search is master-tracker Karel “Pokkie” Benadie, who grew up on Stolshoek Farm near Beaufort West.
The Master Tracker Steps In
The Karoo is a tough place to learn tracking. The sandstone, ironstone and clay soils don’t easily give up the secrets of those creatures that walk over them.
But Pokkie had a feel for it, a natural talent. When Stolshoek farm was later joined to the Karoo National Park, Pokkie began working for SANParks.
He honed his skills by following black rhino through the dense bush, inputting information on what they ate and did on a handheld Cybertracker, a programme invented by tracking legend Louis Liebenberg.
Becoming a master tracker takes decades, and Pokkie is now one of fewer than a dozen such people in the country. He also heads up training and mentoring at the Tracker Academy on Samara Private Game Reserve near Graaff-Reinet.
June 30, 2015 –
Official words from the South African National Parks Board (SANParks):
According to Nico van der Walt, Park Manager at Karoo National Park, the lion was eventually captured late yesterday (Monday, 29 June 2015) after the trackers found spoor in an area approximately 20 kilometers from the Karoo National Park. “It appears the young lad had covered over 300 kilometers during his journey, and a number of sheep and a kudu were reported to have been killed by the lion since its escape.”
“The lion had been located by spotters on Monday above steep cliffs in the Nuweveld Mountains, at 5800ft above sea level. It was darted by a SANParks Vet from a helicopter and brought to safety under extremely difficult conditions. It had to be loaded into a sling underneath the chopper while lying immobilised on the mountain side.
“This was the most dangerous part of the operation as the helicopter blades were not more than two meters from the mountain edge with the lion lying 3 meters from a high cliff.”
Van der Walt said the lion has now been released into a boma and has been fitted with a tracking collar. “We are happy to report that it is in good health and it would be put under observation for the time being.”
SANParks, Chief Executive Officer, Fundisile Mketeni congratulated the team for their professionalism in discharging their duties.
“This has not been an easy task to perform by any measure – we therefore thank all stakeholders from the neighboring communities and all those that assisted in this operation, including a tracking team that came from as far afield as Botswana to assist in bringing the lion back home.”
Assistance in tracking the lion was provided by a range of organizations including Cape Nature, South African Police Services, Northern Cape Conservation, the farming community, Berg Kwagga Trackers, and Shimane Safaris from Botswana.
Mketeni concluded:“It has been a momentous task to track this lion over a period of three weeks under extremely difficult conditions through the mountains and valleys of the Great Karoo, and to effect the safe capture and return of the lion to the Karoo National Park. The efforts of SANParks staff, and all those who assisted, have really lifted conservation to another level and for that we are extremely grateful.”