Some visual images pack a visceral punch. In June over a period of just one fortnight, three whale entanglements in octopus trap lines occurred here in False Bay. Two Bryde whales died; a third, a juvenile humpback survived after being cut free. Photographs showed horrific injuries where ropes cut deeply into flesh and death by drowning, caused bloating. That’s not the worst of it, other whales prior to this had also died through entanglement. A tally of 8 apparently in recent years, but no one knows for sure. Activists sparked outrage over social media and Allison Thomson organised a petition addressed to our Minister of Environmental Affairs, Fisheries and Forestry to stop the octopus fishing. A temporary suspension was called while further assessment could be undertaken in this an “experimental” fishery. Without any scientific data to back up the sustainable viability of the octopus population an “exploratory” license was initially issued for a five year period for a catch of up to 50 tonnes per year. The experiment was to have been monitored by the Department, but apparently has now been running for seventeen years without any scientific oversight. How can the trophic impact to the food web be accurately assessed when one specie is targeted? Do the predators which hunt octopus – eg. seals, or otters or sharks prey instead on penguins? Have the shark species move off somewhere else? No one knows for sure what the knock on effect is on other marine species.
Through the years we have observed the octopus fishing boats laying out the gear – multiple traps fixed over long lines set with bouys and anchors. There are at least twenty-two traps over a kilometer of line attached each end to a bouy. The traps lie on the ocean bed and the submerged lines are supposed to be heavy enough to sink except for section up to the bouys. When the catch is retrieved all the traps need to be pulled up on deck to be emptied and then returned to the water and the gear reset along the edge of the kelp forests, and in some areas quite close to marine reserves.
Meanwhile apparently all the gear has been removed after the license was suspended and the officials debate the ethics of killing whale species over the economic validity of the industry.
Winter at the Cape Peninsula can be petulant: wild and stormy with the Atlantic sea crashing in with dramatic drift and flow contrasted with the calmest sheerest-whisper-of-wind days. Returning after months away traveling to tropical countries, this for me is the best time of year to be in Cape Town. Though home is in the southern peninsula – away from the city lights where nature shows her untrammeled face. I have written quite a few posts on Olifantsbos Beach, here , here and here. This working beach with it’s natural processes attracts diners to a veritable feast. Seabirds flock here and recently i visited hoping to photograph the African Black Oystercatchers but instead got totally distracted by a gaggle of Egyptian geese in mating mode. Their strut and ‘necking’ stole the show. Then the ostriches showed up, the buck and the baboons …..
A wobble of ostrich.
This Chacma baboon troop is one of the wild troops living within the park. There are only two troops which aren’t habituated to raiding anthropogenic food sources and forage only in natural fynbos and the rock pools for shellfish. The rest of the troops are under threat one way or another, either through being attracted into residential areas or through poor conservation practice. Generally there is an overlap into their home range where human recreational facilities feature vineyards, restaurants, picnic and campsites. If baboons know they are going to get easy rewards and when residents and property owners do not secure garbage bins or adequately baboon-proof their properties / homes, baboon raiding patterns become entrenched as they will return over and over. If they learn to rely on human food it voids their inherent role in the ecosystem and disrupts their social relationships. They can become aggressive and when they have to be euthanised there is much outrage often from the humans who are the cause of the entrenched raiding patterns in the first place. While SANParks recognise the ‘res nullius’ free roaming status of baboons, there is a lack of law enforcement for fining people who feed the animals nor are there enforceable by-laws for securing garbage so ultimately it’s the baboons which suffer the consequences.
Pitted against the predatory intentions of a spotted hyena clan, the day to day existence of the Namibs is perilous. The situation has been hotly contested polarising the conservation community – there are those who are for the hyenas and support a policy of non-interference and those who strongly feel obligated towards relocating the horses to a place of safety, or moving the hyena. The debate has been going on for years without much action from the conservation authorities until recently when the plight of the horses became critical. Meetings were held between Minister Shifeta from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) and the Wild Horses Foundation last month with the MET concluding they would draw up a draft management plan, with further consultation “BY THE END OF MAY.”
Meanwhile as the weeks pass there is collective anxiety over the welfare of the remaining foal. Checking the latest Namibia Wild Horses Facebook post she is still alive and doing well. Named Zohra, – in Persian translates as “flower blossom” or in Arabic “Venus, jewel of the sky” which is so aptly descriptive of the white flash on her forehead.
Returning some months to the scenes on 22 February we watched, poised at the viewing site above the waterhole as pairs of horses came into view. The first little foal looked very vulnerable, staying close to mother’s side –
We learned that it had been attacked by spotted hyenas (an injury which looked to be healing, was visible just above the belly on the left side), though it appeared to be coping.
As they moved off after drinking at the waterhole, the little one fell behind, lagging some distance. Concern for it’s well being was justified as shortly afterwards this precious creature did not survive.
The second foal was smaller than the first, coming in on ungainly legs. There she was – little Zohra with her mother Zen.
Into the waterhole she trotted, getting under underfoot and not quite too sure where she should stand.
Tough drought conditions and hyena predation have taken a drastic toll on the wild horses and their numbers have dropped tragically from 286 to 76 over the last few years. Sadly, since 2012 and up until late February, none of the foals have survived and the youngest mare is now 8 years old. Yet could there be the slimmest chance that the wild horses can come back from the brink of extinction? Hope now rests with February’s newborn foal, a little filly, just a couple of months old ……..
But let me pick up the story where i left off in the previous post!
As the horses drew closer to the water trough it appeared to us there was raucous delight in their greetings, upbeat nickering and neighing. From a distance we could hear the thrum of galloping and watched in awe as a group of bachelor stallions came roaring in, stirring up dust clouds and arriving in a swirl of energy.
The scene was filled with their dynamic presence. After slaking their thirst, it was time to sandbathe and attend to additional dietary needs by feeding on nutrient-rich dried manure. Coprophagy is a natural behaviour and an energy-efficient way of deriving nutrients. The Wild Horses’ manure contains almost three times more fat than the area’s dry grass (Stipagrostis obtusa) and almost twice as much protein (6.1 instead of 3.1%).*
To give a contrasting glimpse at the hardships and the tough conditions which the Wild Namibs endure at the edge of the Namib-Nauklauft desert, here are a couple of shots taken in 2017. Drought seared the land and the animals were so pitifully emaciated, but for the dedicated work undertaken by the Namibia Wild Horses Foundation, it is doubtful whether they would survive. Through the years the foundation has raised finances to provide supplementary feed for the horses as well as pursuing with dogged determination negotiations with the Namibian MET (Ministry of Environment and Tourism) in saving the herd from extinction.
Further details in my next post will reveal “Zohra, the Little Foal”. Keep a lookout it’s coming soon! Below is a link to the Namibia Wild Horses Foundation and the critical work which they undertake.
Dawn crept in across the desert plain catching the gossamer dust clouds in a golden light. The spellbinding scene cast a sense of elation as the wild horses drew closer. We were at the Garub viewing terrace following their trail in anxious anticipation as they neared the borehole water site. We’d heard that they were in reasonable shape after low rainfall had resuscitated the grass and foraging opportunities had improved. Small family groups kept together, and we could make out the figures of two small foals. Lone stallions came from different directions keeping a distance from the small herds.
They are recognised as a separate breed, the “Namibs” after 100 or so years of their blood lines merging through natural selection across the generations. Elegant and long-limbed, they’re handsome creatures. Living free on the plains of the eastern edge of the Namib-Nauklauft desert, has it’s challenges. Their story of survival in this unforgiving environment is one that evokes awe, but are the odds stacked against them as their numbers dwindle and predation by the spotted hyaena is a continued threat?