As of last year, more humans live in cities and towns than in rural areas. As our urban centers expand in population and area, they increasingly encroach on the natural habitat of wild animals. In some cases, people and animals learn to coexist reasonable successfully, but most of the time the animals end up with the short end of the stick.
Now I’ve heard of bears exploring towns in Alaska and foxes roaming the streets of London at night, but I have a feeling that my own hometown, Cape Town in South Africa, has a rather exotic collection of urban wildlife that’s hard to beat. Let me know if your city can do better.
Boulder’s Beach in the suburb of Simon’s Town is home to a colony of African Penguins — yes, there is such a thing. Surrounded by family homes, the colony was established by two breeding pairs in 1983 and has since grown to encompass about 3,000 individuals.
African Penguins, also known as Black-footed or Jackass Penguins (the latter because of their donkey-like bray) are a vulnerable species. Aside from natural predators, including sharks and Cape Fur Seals, they are threatened by oil spills and other pollution, commercial fishing and a loss of habitat. Since pre-industrial times populations in Namibia and South Africa are estimated to have plummeted by 95%.
At Boulder’s Beach, which forms part of the Table Mountain National Park, the penguins are protected. They can be seen waddling along foot paths and swimming out to sea to fish and on the part of the beach that is open to the public, you can even swim with them.
If the African Penguins at Boulder’s Beach are the cutest examples of Cape Town’s wildlife, the Chacma Baboons that inhabit the Cape Peninsula are probably the naughtiest. They eat fruit, honey, insects, bulbs, roots and scorpions, but at various places of interest, they have learned to associate tourists with food. Some have even learned to open car doors and pinch snacks and assorted other items. In built-up areas, they have been known to lead cheeky raids on urban homes and schools.
Baboons would normally avoid people, but when food is involved, they can become rather aggressive, so for everyone’s sake, it’s become quite important to keep people and baboons apart from one another as diplomatically as possible. To this end, conservation organisations and the city council have established baboon monitors — people employed to discreetly follow and observe troops of baboons as they forage through the peninsula and steer them away from urban areas where they might get into trouble.
False Bay on Cape Town’s southern coast has a large population of Great White Sharks, attracted, among other things, by the 60 000-strong colony of Cape Fur Seals on nearby Seal Island. Shark attacks on swimmers and surfers do occur, but compared to the many other ways in which Captonians manage to injure and kill themselves and others every year, they are exceedingly rare.
Great Whites are recognised as vital members of the aquatic ecology and are protected in South Africa. Authorities have resisted calls for shark nets that tend to do more harm than good. Instead they’ve come up with an alternative that, although not 100% effective, has proved to be highly successful.
Along the mountainous False Bay coastline, shark spotters armed with binoculars are deployed on elevated ground to keep a watchful eye on popular surfing and bathing beaches. When they spot a shark they sound an alarm and warn their colleagues on the beach who raise warning flags and get bathers out of the water.
In 2009 a young, 800 kg hippo by the name of Zorro caused some consternation in Cape Town’s southern suburbs when it escaped from its home in the Rondevlei Nature Reserve and set up camp in the adjoining waste water treatment facility. The reserve is separated from neighboring residential areas by a fence and the herd of hippos is normally quite happy in the shallow fresh water lake that gives the reserve its name, but Zorro had gotten into a fight with his old man and needed to skip the place.
In 2004, another hippo escape artists, appropriately named Houdini, also did a runner and managed to evade the conservation authorities for some time. Other than these occasional escapades, hippos and Captonians co-inhabit their city peacefully.
Which wild animals do you share your city with?
Andreas is a book shop manager and freelance writer in Cape Town, South Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
Photo from: Stock.Xchng