Many of the mammals of the Agulhas plane are seldom seen due to their nocturnal lifestyle but signs of them having passed through an area is always evident if one knows what to look for.
Tracks are a common sight especially after rains in the damp sand or holes dug by animals foraging. Evidence from camera traps set by the many private reserves have revealed surprising results. This Cape Leopard Panthera pardus photographed in Flower Valley, a species thought to have been wiped out from the area years ago. It’s unknown how many leopards are in the Overberg area but encouraging reports of spoor finds are becoming more frequent. Caracal sightings and spoor are common and I see these beautiful cats at least a dozen times each year. Although both these animals are still trapped and killed the majority of farmers have understood the benefits of having these top predators in the ecosystem.
Of the 81 terrestrial mammals known from the Cape Floral Kingdom, 65 species have been recorded or are likely to occur on the Agulhas Plain The majority of these are rodents (21 species) and small carnivores (14 species) and includes four mammal species classified as vulnerable
The Chacma baboon Papio ursinus, also known as the Cape baboon, is one of the reasons the local farmers tolerate the Cape Leopard, seldom seen on the coast preferring the mountains with ample fresh water and trees, often heard before seen barking usually at us from the protection of the mountains. Large social groups often chance encounters usually crossing roads. They are omnivorous creatures with a preference for fruits, while also eating insects, seeds, grass and smaller vertebrate animals. The Chacma baboon is generally a scavenger when it comes to game meat and rarely engages in hunting large animals.
Cape Clawless Otter
Cape clawless Otter Aonyx capensis tracks can often be seen where freshwater is close to the sea shore. They are opportunistic predators, hunting a wide range of food in the crepuscular (dawn, dusk) hours they are seldom seen, but their spoor and latrine areas indicate their presence. Much of its prey is found by feeling with their flexible fingers and opposable thumb probing under rocks and in crevices enabling this otter to thrive in poor visibility waters.
We often see signs of small antelopes on the trail and occasionally catch a glimpse of The Cape or southern Grysbok (Raphicerus melanotis) endemic to the Western Cape. Other Antelope seen are Steenbok Raphicerus campestris and Common Duiker Sylvicapra grimmia mostly these antelope are browsers but will take fresh grasses, The Grysbok has been seen in the open on the beach or on the crest of the dunes, best results to observe this behaviour happens when moving quietly.
Cape Fur Seal
An opportunity to see the Cape fur Seal (Arctocephalus pusillus) off Quoin Point where there is a large breeding colony (over 3000 seals make a colony) of a few thousand seals on the Shipwreck Shore section, and again a chance to get closer on the Walk with Whales section (a much smaller non breeding colony) where these seals have recently started congregating this new colony has had a direct result of more sightings of great white sharks in the immediate area, although a breaching shark seen from shore is a once in a lifetime occurrence myself and a few others have been fortunate enough to have experienced this spectacle on a walk in this area. It’s also common to find seal carcasses washed ashore with large tell-tale bite marks.
The large breeding colony of seals on Geyser Rock (Dyer island) produces over 8 000 pups a year or 3% of the seal pup population in southern Africa.
Southern Right Whales
Between May and December Southern Right Whales Eubalaena australis occupy protected bays along the South African coast they arrive to calve and mate. Possibly the easiest whale to identify by its lack of dorsal fin and its logging (floating) behaviour, the whales also have a number of callosities on its head used to identify individuals, other behaviour such as breaching, sailing, lobtailing, or spyhopping can be witnessed.
Since hunting ceased, stocks are estimated to have grown by 7% a year, or doubling every 10 years. During the whale season these gentle giants can be seen on all stages of the walk but to get up close and personal the best place is De Kelders on the Walk with Whales section the steep drop off allows us to approach along the cliff path where we can see these whales from a distance of 20 meters away, feel and smell their breath as they blow, it’s a special experience you never tire of.
Other species of Baleen whales are often seen in Walker Bay including Humpback Whales Megaptera novaeangliae usually stop off for a while on the longest mammal migration north, Bryde’s Whales Balaenoptera edeni are year round visitors to this bay sometimes seen feeding on the pilchards or anchovies that congregate here.
Dolphins are also a common sight but from shore identification can be difficult usually only by their behaviour, these long-beaked Common Dolphin often in large pods of several hundred to thousands can be seen often feeding on schooling fish offshore attracting an aerial assault from cape gannets. This spectacle can be over in minutes or last for hours.
Many bones of various mammals final resting place is the coast where they wash ashore and decay leaving bleached bones for us to examine their anatomy, with whale bones the size and weight is always a good thing as it hinders people removing them from the environment.
Living and working in the coastal environment I’m occasionally faced with a species that doesn’t belong here, this Crabeater seal Lobodon carcinophagus by far the most abundant seal in the world is confined to pack-ice zone around Antarctica an extremely rare sighting here. Despite their name they feed almost exclusively on krill with specialised teeth for sieving the krill from the water. This lost animal became the focus of one of many marine mammal rescues with the help of Wilfred Chivell from Dyer Island Conservation trust.
Links & Sources
Field guid to mammals of Southern Africa Chris & Tilde Stuart
Statistics provided by Honorary rangers course Agulhas National park Smithers 1986 . Stuart 1981; Lloyd & Millar 1983; Skinner & Smithers 1990; ABI undated.