Time Running Out for Exotic Tahrs in Cape Town

Ron Irwin
for National Geographic News
September 28, 2001

Cape Town's Table Mountain has a spectacular array of flora and fauna that includes at least 1,470 plants—as many as in all of the United Kingdom. The mountain is also home to descendents of ancient mountain goats, called tahrs, which are nearly extinct in their native Himalayas.

Now, the South African agency that oversees Table Mountain's wildlife is set to eliminate the area's population of tahrs, which feed on the vegetation. Officials say the move is necessary to protect the area's indigenous plant life, some of which is unique to the Cape Province.

The plan has raised a public outcry. Some residents of the Cape organized as Friends of the Tahr have gained support from people around the world—including the Dalai Lama—in their efforts to halt the removal until they can find a way to save the exotic animals.

Thanks largely to the work of Jeanne Wadee, the unofficial head of the Friends of the Tahr, the group has managed to block the killing of the tahrs, which began in May 2000. By the time it was stopped in February of this year, Table Mountain's tahr population had been reduced by half, with only about 50 remaining.

Yet time for any rescue effort to save the remaining tahrs is running out: The moratorium on the extermination program expires October 1.

The park authority that oversees the Table Mountain nature reserve, the Cape Peninsula National Park, says the tahrs are an invasive species that threaten the survival of indigenous species. Yet Cape officials have left the door open to a last-minute rescue by the Friends of the Tahr.

Members of the group challenge the idea that the tahrs are an invasive species. The tahrs "are part of Cape Town and her heritage and have been on the mountain for nearly 70 years—a long time in anyone's book. So if this does not make them 'local,' then I don't know what does," said Ellen Fedele, one of the founders of the Friends of the Tahrs.

Rescue Plan Proposed

The Himalayan tahr, one of three species of tahr, are close relatives of ancient mountain goats. They stand about 38 inches (97 centimeters) high at the shoulder and their diet consists of grass, plants, leaves, and twigs.

The Himalayan tahr has been poached to the verge of extinction in much of its native range in India. A sizable population still exists in New Zealand, where the species was introduced at the turn of the century.

The tahrs on Table Mountain are remnants of a colony whose history stretches back to 1936 when two tahrs from a zoo—whose forebears had been brought to South Africa at the turn of the century by Cecil Rhodes—found refuge in the greenery of the mountain's sheer slopes.

The Cape Province was once inhabited by many large African animals that are now gone from the region, including rhinos, elephants, leopards, and lions. The Cape Peninsula National Park, which encompasses the Table Mountain nature reserve, still supports a wide array of animal and bird species, such as bontebok, grysbok, caracals, mongooses, otters, and baboons.

Continued on Next Page >>


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