Visitors come from far and wide to this national park in the Eastern Cape to see endangered Cape mountain zebras. Dr Martin Briggs, veterinarian, recalls his role in the species’ continuing story.

Reading the winter 2019 issue of Wild magazine, my attention was caught by the story on Mountain Zebra National Park. My wife, Sue, and I have visited this park near Cradock. In our 4×4 we’ve travelled up the steep trails to the high plateaux.

Martin and his wife Sue camping in the park. All pictures courtesy of Dr Martin Briggs

On a clear day, we’ve looked for Salpeterskop, the hill that is famous for the chessboard engraved on its summit. Apparently, during the Anglo-Boer War, British troops, bored with sending messages with a heliograph to their officers below, sought to keep themselves entertained with games of chess.

In the park we’ve enjoyed sightings of eland, black wildebeest, red hartebeest, shy kudu and gemsbok. In the summer months, afternoon thunderstorms can be powerful, and we have been caught in one while camping there!

But Mountain Zebra National Park will forever be associated with the Cape mountain zebra, and that is what made me pause.

The chessboard engraved on its summit of Salpeterskop

A species on the brink

Cape mountain zebra (Equus zebra zebra) differ in appearance from the other zebra species. They can be distinguished by their thin stripes and lack of shadow stripes, along with orange colouration around the muzzle and blaze. Whereas plains zebra have stripes that wrap around the belly, mountain zebra have distinctive white bellies.

Formerly widely distributed in the mountain ranges of the Eastern and Western Cape, the Cape mountain zebra had been hunted almost to extinction in the mid-1930s. It was only just saved by the proclamation of Mountain Zebra National Park (MZNP) in 1937.

Today only three naturally occurring populations still exist, namely in the Kamanassie mountains, Gamkaberg Nature Reserve and MZNP. A new population at De Hoop Nature Reserve is comprised of individuals translocated from MZNP, Kamanassie and the now extinct populations of the Kouga and Outeniqua mountains.

Translocation also played an important role in growing the population of Mountain Zebra National Park. In fact, 40 years ago, I was in charge of the game capture when Cape mountain zebra had to be translocated from the then Cape Point Nature Reserve (today part of Table Mountain National Park) to MZNP.

The beautifully striped Cape mountain zebra

Moving mountain zebra

Gerald Wright was the chief game warden of the Cape Point reserve then and his men had great difficulty extracting the mountain zebra from the rocky canyons and fynbos forests. A helicopter searched for animals hiding in gorges and then radioed their position to ground crews in 4x4s.

As the vet, I prepared the darts as described by Dr Antonie Hartshoorn in his fellowship thesis. A fellow of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in London, Dr Hartshoorn had been sent to Uganda by a pharmaceutical company to develop darting technology for game capture. He related to me that, in those days, he could fly anywhere in the world without disclosing the contents of his suitcase – full of highly concentrated and dangerous drugs! Later, through further studies, I was admitted as a fellow at the same Royal College.

The mountain zebra were darted from the air and then picked up by the ground crews. Their 4×4 trucks were specially adapted so that two zebra could be placed inside lying down, with staff members keeping the animals’ head upright.

Moving mountain zebra

Time was of the essence

The 4x4s arrived at the boma in a cloud of dust since speedy recovery was paramount. Adrenaline triggered by the zebra’s fight-or-flight reaction would result in a build-up of metabolites such as lactic acid. Captured animals may die from capture myopathy [muscle damage].

As staff rolled the zebra onto sacks and slid them into the boma, I got to work. I quickly excised the dart and sprayed the wound with antiseptic aerosol, followed by an injection of penicillin. Vitamin E and selenium were administered to prevent muscle damage and I set up an intravenous infusion of a balanced electrolyte solution. When the infusion ended I quickly withdrew the canula and, making sure no staff were left in the boma, gave the antidote before hopping over the boma wall with alacrity.

I’m happy to report that we had a 100% success rate. The translocation programme itself was a conservation success story, contributing to a viable breeding population in Mountain Zebra National Park.

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