Cape of Horns

Bontebok of the Cape Point

Near extinction of bontebok in South Africa
Bontebok were once so numerous in the Cape that the first colonists considered them to be pests. The wanton slaughter of the animals eventually decimated the population. By the mid-1920s, there were less than 20 bontebok in the Cape.

The species owes its survival to a farmer by the name of Alexander van der Byl, who created a haven for them on his farm in the Overberg – near George. In 1931, South Africa’s National Parks Board created a refuge for the bontebok in the vicinity of Van Der Byl’s farm in what is now named, aptly enough, the Bondebok National Park. This made the bontebok the first antelope in the world to be specifically conserved.

About fifteen years later, at the end of the second World War, the Parks Board transported four bontebok from the Overberg to the Cape Point Nature Reserve. But this was not without its controversy.

On one hand, even though bontebok are endemic to the Cape, fynbos is not its preferred food. Bontebok prefered to graze in the grasslands because fynbos does not have sufficient quantities of copper and cobalt for the antelope’s diet. Some argued that the bontebok would overgraze such a small area as the Cape Point Reserve and become detrimental to the region.

But the Reserve had been in the hands of the military for the duration of the war, so populating it with bontebok was seen as a statement of intent for the nature reserve, and a way to get visitors to Cape Point.

So the bontebok were transferred to this small, windswept corner of the African continent. And they thrived.

There are currently around 200 bontebok in the Reserve.

 

The bontebok and the blesbok

The bontebok is a close cousin of the blesbok. The two antelope look remarkably similar, except that the blesbok has a white stripe along its forehead and the bontebok has white rump. There is also a small difference in the colour of the horns.

But the two animals are genetically almost identical. So similar, in fact, that keeping the populations of each ‘pure’ has become something of a conservational campaign. Interbreeding between the two species occurs readily. Conservationists are keen to keep them separate (in order to ensure maximum biodiversity) and do regular blood tests to determine the purity of any bontebok that are transported between reserves.

The reason for the genetic similarity between the two species is fascinating. Hundreds of thousands of years ago the Karoo – the semi-desert region that takes up most of South Africa’s interior – was once a lush, grassy savannah. And there roamed an ancestor of both the bontebok and the blesbok. When the Karoo dried up, it split the herd. Half of the animals went south, to the greener pastures of the Western Cape and the other half went north, to the grass savannahs of the Highveld. The southern herd became the distinct species known as bontebok and the northern species became the blesbok.

Both the bontebok and blesbok populations have made remarkable recoveries since the ravages of the colonists. Today bontebok populations need to be controlled and surplus animals moved to accommodate expanding populations.

 

Strange behavior
The mating behavior of the bontebok is interesting enough to cover in some greater detail.

Bontebok are found in private game reserves throughout the Western Cape, but there are only three breeding populations that are considered ‘pure’ (ie. no blesbok DNA): the Bontebok National Park, De Hoop Nature Reserve, and right here in Cape Point.

In Between Two Shores, Michael Fraser describes the behaviour of the animals in Cape Point:

Bontebok are social animals, but tailor their herds into groups comprising bachelor males, and nursery herds of females and their lambs (which are born in spring)… If you disturb a herd of bontebok, you may notice that one animal lingers as the others move off. This is the territorial male, an, in what has been interpreted as a symbolic gesture of defiance, he turns broadside on to a perceived threat and then urinates before moving off.

If you are ever at the Reserve and observe a large bontebok behaving quite strangely – prancing about, craning his neck, waving his horns… generally making a spectacle of himself – this is why:

Bontebok males are fiercely territorial. They will stake out a piece of turf that they will claim as their own. If a nursery herd of females wanders into his territory, the male shall attempt to keep them there by performing antics that provide entertainment to go with their grazing meal.

“The females, in response,” notes Michael Fraser, “come and go as they please.”

 

You’ve read the story, now head to Cape Point where you can:

  • See newly born bontebok lambs between the months of September and November.
  • Two favourite locations for the bontebok are at Buffelsvlei (where they are attracted to the grass) and the Circular Drive (where they graze on the
  • Bontebok feed on recently burned veld (they love the new sprouts), so keep a look out for them near recently burned patches.
  • Other species of antelope at the Reserve include:
    • Eland
    • Grysbok
    • Steenbok
    • Grey Rhebok
    • Common Duiker (extremely rare, only spotted in the northern part of the Reserve)

 

PODCAST: Listen to the story of the bontebok at Cape Point