Time Running Out for Exotic Tahrs in Cape Town

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James Jackelman, manager of conservation services for the Table Mountain nature reserve, said that the tahrs' foraging poses a major threat to the mountain's fragile ecosystem and rich endemic plant life.

Moreover, he contends, the tahr is an aggressive and territorial animal that doesn't cohabit peacefully with local South African antelope. As a result, he explained, park authorities have not been able to introduce South African klipspringer into the reserve.

The Friends of the Tahr have proposed a number of ways to save the remaining tahrs on Table Mountain. The suggestions have included moving them to a farm in the Cape Peninsula and having the animals sterilized. Cape officials have rejected these ideas, saying the tahrs could accidentally expand their range in the Cape if not removed.

But the park authority has not objected to the Friends of the Tahrs' most ambitious proposal: shipping all the remaining animals to India.

To this end, the Friends of the Tahr have enlisted the help of India's minister for social justice and empowerment, Maneka Gandhi. She is in discussions with the South African government to have the 50 tahrs on Table Mountain airlifted to India. The Indian government has set aside a reserve for them in Himachal Pradesh, near Kashmir close to the borders of Nepal and Bhutan.

But an obstacle remains: the Friends of the Tahr have had to plan and pay for the relocation.

Challenge of Relocation

It will be a challenge to remove the strong, agile tahrs from Table Mountain, whose steep sandstone slopes are covered with treacherous rocks and crevasses.

To solve the problem, the Friends of the Tahr have hired James Innes, head of a Utah-based company called Helicopter Wildlife Management. The firm specializes in retrieving animals from hard-to-reach places by capturing them in nets released from helicopters.

Over the past decade, Innes has used the aerial technique to round up more than 17,000 animals from regions throughout the world. In the treacherous Rocky Mountains, for example, he has safely captured bighorn sheep, wild horses, moose, caribou, wolves, coyotes, and grizzly and black bears.

The company has already used the rescue method to catch and relocate hundreds of tahrs in New Zealand.

Innes is convinced his team could safely remove the tahrs from Table Mountain and carry them to a holding area where they would be quarantined for three weeks before being crated for their trip to India. In Himachal Pradesh, they would be able to mate freely with the small number of tahrs dwelling there.

Jackleman worries that the Cape Town tahrs may have become so acclimatized to the relatively mild climate of southern Africa that they may have trouble adjusting to the more rigorous conditions of the Himalayas. He also questions whether the net-gun rescue operation can be done safely and successfully, despite Innes's confidence in the project.

Jackleman and his staff acknowledge that killing the Table Mountain tahrs is a last-ditch, unpopular solution, but they insist it's necessary.

South Africa is one of the most respected game reserve administrators in the world and has carried out ambitious culling projects—reducing the populations of elephants, lions, and other well-known African game animals in Kruger Park—with much less public opposition.

But Table Mountain lies in the middle of one of South Africa's biggest cities, and how it is managed is a matter of local scrutiny. Jackleman said he understands the outcry, and regards the public debate as "healthy and necessary."

Wadee and other Friends of the Tahrs argue that their efforts reflect the public's desire to save the exotic animals. The country's national parks, Wadee said, should not act alone in deciding the fate of Table Mountain's flora and fauna.

The Friends of the Tahr have appealed worldwide for funds to finance the resettlement program. But the group still needs 800,000 rands (U.S. $90,000) to meet the cost. With the October 1 deadline on the moratorium fast approaching, it's unclear whether they'll be able to act in time to prevent the remaining tahrs from being killed.

The author is a co-partner in the South African-based media company Atomic Productions.

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