It is strange now to think that elephant and rhino once inhabited the slopes of Table Mountain. Early visitors reported their fears of being on the mountain after dark because of predators.
Words by Fiona McIntosh
Photographs by Shaen Adey
Siyabona Africa recommended book on Table Mountain:Table Mountain Activities
Authors: Shaen Adey and Fiona McIntosh.
Copyright © 2004 Struik Publishers Cape Town.
It is strange now to think that elephant and rhino once inhabited the slopes of Table Mountain. Early visitors reported their fears of being on the mountain after dark because of predators. However, the last lion was seen in 1802 and leopard sightings are very rare. (Many books state that the leopard was driven out by 1870, but leopard spoor is still seen today.)
Urbanisation of the Cape Peninsula has seen a further depletion in the variety of animals. Only a few antelope remain, although bontebok, eland and mountain zebra have been re-introduced at Cape Point and are easily sighted on the walking trails. A selective breeding scheme, the Quagga Project, means that visitors walking around the fence next to the enclosed parkland to the Cape Town side of Rhodes Memorial may spot zebra, blue wildebeest, bontebok and, thanks to Cecil John Rhodes, fallow deer.
The summit plateau, upper slopes and rocky outcrops Chacma baboon. This large primate is regularly found in troops on rocky cliffs around the southern Peninsula and around parked vehicles at Cape Point where they have become a serious nuisance. The males are large and intimidating with a dog-like bark.
The dassie, or hyrax, is probably the most frequently sighted mammal on the rocky areas of Table Mountain particularly around the Upper Cable Station and at the lookouts at Cape Point where they scavenge for food. Please don't encourage this by feeding them. The small, tailless dassies live in colonies and never venture far from their rock shelters. Males tend to occupy high vantage points and give a harsh warning call when danger threatens.
Unfortunately for dassies, they are the Black (Verreaux's) Eagle's favourite food so they have to be particularly wary in autumn when the eagles are rearing their chicks. Dassies usually urinate on the same spot and the excretion evaporates to a hard, glassy substance, which the Khoikhoi people used to collect and use for medicinal purposes.
The diurnal and predominantly insectivorous Grey Mongoose generally hunts in dense undergrowth. It is identified by its sharp snout, distinctive dark grey coat flecked with white, and long bushy tail.
Although a characteristic feature of the fauna of Africa, antelope species are rarely seen on Table Mountain. The most common, the Cape Grysbok, is nocturnal so is not often spotted except at dusk or dawn or on overcast days. The small antelope, with its thick red coat flecked with grey hairs, usually inhabits dense fynbos, but its penchant for young grapes means that wine farmers consider it a pest. Grysbok are usually seen singly or in pairs and the male sports short, straight horns.
The porcupine, the largest rodent in Africa, is nocturnal and therefore rarely seen. However, its discarded long white and black quills are often seen on the mountain. Porcupines tend to live in caves and crevices, but if these are not available they will settle for a hole in the ground or a burrow abandoned by another animal.
The main predator of the open veld is the caracal, or lynx, a nocturnal cat often seen around the southern Cape Peninsula, where it feeds predominantly on guinea fowl, dassies, small rodents and the occasional antelope. The caracal is small, reddish-fawn in colour (hence the Afrikaans name of rooikat - or 'red cat') and with sharp, pointed ears accentuated by tufts of black hair. You may occasionally see its striking, gold eyes, with distinctive dark blue pupils, shining in the darkness.
Tahrs (sometimes spelt thar) are shy animals, slightly larger than goats, with males sporting a long, shaggy mane. Although native to North India, two were imported from New Zealand in 1937 and kept in the zoo on the Rhodes Estate. They soon escaped by jumping the fence and disappeared onto Table Mountain. The tahrs thrived on the fynbos and easily adapted to the mountain climate.
Their rubber-like hooves made for easy movement on the steep cliffs and soon they posed a significant threat to the fynbos. In recent decades conservation authorities introduced culling programmes to limit the numbers of tahrs. The aim is to completely remove the remaining individuals, paving the way for the indigenous klipspringer to be reintroduced.
Summit plateau and mountain slopesReptiles
- Other than the tahr and dassie there is little to see in the way of animal life on the summit plateau and upper slopes. However, if you look carefully in the mornings and evenings, you will see numerous lizards such as the small, dark Cape Girdled Lizard, spying insects from rocky vantage points. Its spiny tail and flat triangular head make it easily identifiable. The shy Cape Mountain Lizard finds camouflage in the fynbos. It is usually seen searching for small insects in the early morning and late afternoon.
If you spot a lizard with a blue-green head and turquoise throat it is most likely the Southern Rock Agama. Another common lizard is the Cape Skink with its smooth shiny body and long tapering tail. It has three off-white stripes running the length of its body. At night, timid geckos such as the Marbled Leaf-toed Gecko and Oscillated Thick-toed Gecko emerge from their hiding places. And then if course there are the snakes. Although most listed below are diurnal, they are extremely shy so are rarely seen, but a glimpse of a tail, or even a rustle in the bushes, is guaranteed to get your heart pumping.
There are over 20 snake species on the Peninsula. Nine are venomous and five - the Boomslang, Rinkhals, Puff Adder, Berg Adder and Cape Cobra - are potentially lethal. It's important to remember, however, that all are non-aggressive and will only attack as a last resort. The chances of an encounter with a snake are rare, particularly if you make plenty of noise to warn snakes of your presence. If you do see one sunning itself, stand still and wait for it to move off.
StreamsCape Clawless Otter
- This nocturnal animal, about a metre in length, is occasionally spotted in the riverine area of Cape Point, in the Silvermine River Valley and in the Disa River (Orange Kloof). They feed mainly on fish, frog and crab and you will often see their droppings - which often contain bits of crab material - in these areas.Amphibians
- The perennial streams that tinkle off the mountain support a number of frog species whose loud, consistent calls accompany the hiker. If you walk near streams on the top of Table Mountain, you will hear the plop of the Cape River Frog as it leaps into the water on your approach. The short, sharp call of the Clicking Stream Frog is also common throughout the year and, if you come across a grove of the majestic white Arum Lilies that are widely found along streambeds in the marshy areas of the mountain, inspect the blooms carefully.
They often house the tiny, cream-coloured Arum Lily Frog. The highly endangered, long-limbed, Table Mountain Ghost Frog occurs only in perennial streams edged with forest on the eastern slope of the mountain but is rarely seen. It takes its name both as a result of its elusive nature and from its white, semi-transparent underbelly.
Further readingWildlife of the Cape Peninsula, Duncan Butchart, Struik Publishers
This is undoubtedly the best pocket guide for the generalist. It gives a good overview of the major habitats, trees and plant species, mammals, birds and reptiles. Simple to find your way around, with a photo for each specimen and useful key showing in which habitat you are likely to find each species.