Year in the Wild Blog

YITW 2013-14 – Agulhas NP – The grunt of hippos at the bottom of Africa

I’ve spent a few days recently at Agulhas National Park, and while I was in the area, I spent some time with the local farmers. There’s a fascinating and optimistic story unfolding down here at the southern end of the African continent.

Dirk Human’s family has been farming in the area for several generations. As Dirk explained, no one is sure of the exact date, but it was around 1850 that his great-grandfather Pieter Albertyn shot the last hippo of the southern Cape.

In 2009 Dirk released a pod of five hippo into a large vlei on his farm, just a few kilometres from Cape Agulhas. The hippos came from Lake St Lucia in northern KwaZulu-Natal.

“Because my groot-oupa shot the last hippo, maybe I had a duty to bring them back,” said Dirk.

The hippos have since had two calves in the large wetlands that form part of the Nuwejaars River system. Eland, hartebeest, bontebok and Cape buffalo have also returned.

‘We’re slowly moving towards restoring the natural systems as they existed in previous centuries,’ Dirk explained to me on his farm where he makes his wine called Black Oystercatcher.

“The hippos will keep the channels in the wetlands open and help keep the vlei ecology healthy. They’re a symbol of what we’re trying to do for the whole region.”

One evening fellow farmer Mick D’Alton took me to try photograph the hippos, but because the wind was really strong, they didn’t emerge for us from the huge vlei.

The Agulhas farmlands today are some of the most productive in the country, yielding wheat, barley, dairy and vineyards. But 200 years ago the rolling hills and extensive wetlands used to teem with wildlife on a scale that rivaled East Africa. The region, including the renosterveld “Ruens” to the north, was colloquially known as the “Serengeti of the South”.

In 1689 traveller Isaq Schryver noted a herd of at least a thousand bontebok on his journey through the Overberg. In 1673 a shipwreck survivor was killed by an elephant. Locals still sometimes discover elephant tusks and white rhino skulls in the sandy soils, evidence that these animals were once abundant here.

Hunters destroyed most of the large fauna and exterminated the bloubok and quagga. The bontebok almost followed soon after. If it weren’t for a small group of farmers, this close relative of the blesbok would also be extinct.

By 1837 only a few small herds remained. In that year farmer Alexander van der Bijl rounded up the last 17 bontebok on Earth and protected them on his farm. Today their numbers have grown to safe levels.

Like the farmers 200 years ago, Dirk and 25 other land owners (including Mick D’Alton) – along with the Elim community – are doing their best to re-establish the region’s remarkable biodiversity, while also creating job opportunities based on harvesting of fynbos, alien vegetation removal, wetland rehabilitation and eco-tourism.

Called the Nuwejaars Wetlands Special Management Area, the group have committed about 460 square kilometres of their private land (worth about R1 billion) around Agulhas National Park to conservation-minded agriculture. About a half of this land is in its original, natural state.

All the farmers have title deed restrictions to ensure best practice conservation principles are maintained. Even if the farms are sold, the new owners are obliged to follow the same principles in perpetuity. The national government intends to sign it off as the first private protected environment in the country, and use it as a model for farming areas in the rest of the country.

Agulhas is one of the most biodiverse areas in South Africa. But scientists have warned that the region could be hit hard by climate change. So maintaining corridors of natural ecosystems will allow fauna and flora to move and adapt to changing conditions.

The region includes the 230 square kilometre Agulhas National Park and has about 2 500 species of plants, roughly 300 of which are found nowhere else on Earth. Thirty-two species are threatened with extinction. In some places the concentration of endemic plants is unparalleled anywhere in the world.

‘The park has one of the highest botanical diversities per unit area in the world,’ former Agulhas National Park manager Etienne Fourie once told me. ‘It’s vital for the conservation of lowland fynbos.’

He explained that on the slopes of the Soetanysberg there are seven fynbos types – each with hundreds of species – in a 90 square-kilometre area. Some species – such as the bashful sugarbush (Protea pudens) – are extremely limited in their distribution, occurring only on private land in just one or two places.

There are 230 bird species, including more than 21 000 water birds (about nine per cent of those in the Western Cape), which can be found on Soetendalsvlei, the most southerly lake in the country and one of the largest.

Significant populations of blue crane and Denham’s bustard – both vulnerable – occur on the inland plains. Numerous vleis, estuaries, rivers and wetlands are home to at least 18 species of frogs and toads, including the critically endangered micro frog, the endangered Cape platanna and western leopard toad, previously thought to exist only on the Cape peninsula near Cape Town.

Freshwater fish species include the Cape kurper, Cape galaxias and Nuwejaar’s Redfin Minnow, all of which are threatened by degradation and alien fish such as bass.

Dirk has several camera traps on his farm, and he’s got great footage and photos of the hippos, Cape clawless otters and caracal. Have a look below at the beautiful video of the caracal kittens.

It will be a long time before anyone sees a herd of 1 000 bontebok roaming the Agulhas plain, like Isaq Shrijver did 300 years ago, but together with the national park, Dirk and the Agulhas farmers are laying the foundations for a natural, sustainable future.

A camera-trap photo of one of the hippos on Dirk's farm...

The buffalos of Agulhas have returned...contained to large enclosures, maybe one day they will be able to roam.

The restaurant deck at Black Oystercatcher Wine Farm

The self-catering cottages at Black Oystercatcher wine farm near Agulhas

Wheat fields of the Overberg

Looking over the wetlands of the Agulhas area. This view is north over the vleis where the hippos are now at home.

A flock of sacred ibis is disturbed by a fish eagle at dusk.

A purple heron

A closer view of the extensive vleis near Agulhas.

The coastal sand dunes near Brandfontein, just west of the national park

Near the southern tip of Africa is lagoon cottage, an old holiday home perched on the edge of the ocean. It now belongs to the national park and can be rented by visitors.

Rietfontein is another place in the national park where visitors can stay...

Sunset - Agulhas style...the weather in this area is notoriously unpredictable, making it rewarding - and frustrating - for a photographer.

Looking west to Brandfontein, from the top of the dunes

My friend Kate Collins walking the dunes near Brandfontein...

For more, go to www.yearinthewild.com and www.facebook.com/yearinthewild. Check out my Flickr photos at www.flickr.com/scottnramsay and my Instagram photos at www.instagram.com/wildscotty. Twitter on www.twitter.com/yearinthewild.

Thanks to my partners Cape Union MartFord EverestGoodyear, and K-Way.

As well as WildCardEeziAwnFrontrunnerGlobecommHetznerNational LunaOutdoor PhotoSafari Centre Cape Town, Tracks 4 Africa, and Vodacom.

Conservation partners BirdLife South AfricaBotswana Department of Wildlife and National ParksCapeNatureEastern Cape Parks and TourismEzemvelo KZN WildlifeGorongosa National ParkiSimangaliso Wetland Park, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Parque Nacional do Limpopo, South African National Parks and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.

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