Life on the Edge: the Wilder Side of Cape Town

When you’re living in a major city, like Cape Town, which surrounds a national park you’re inevitably going to encounter wildlife. But bizarrely you might encounter that wildlife not just in the national park but also maybe crossing a road, in a picnic site, in your own backyard or even perched on top of a high rise building. On the Peninsula a variety of animals are adapting to the new altered environment surrounding their home and they could in fact be adapting to us quicker than we are to them.

Of all the animals attempting to conquer the urban environment in the Cape, the chacma baboon is perhaps the most infamous. I have lived alongside two troops of baboons in Tokai for 11 years and these animals have made a strong impression on me. I even did a research project on them when I was 16. I have never had my house broken into by them but I’ve seen wandering males a few blocks away from me and I have had countless close encounters with them at horse farms, a local college campus and in Tokai Plantation. I have had my bicycle helmet chewed by one (it still carried the tooth marks). While these two troops haven’t given me too many problems, other people have different stories to tell. Friends of mine who live in Kommetjie, Fish Hoek and Scarborough have had their houses broken into by their local troops and many of these baboons are now adept at opening car doors. In the previous post, I mentioned how it was a combination of feeding by humans and urban encroachment that has lead many baboons to adopt this new lifestyle. Now, most of the Cape baboons supplement their natural diet of diet of plant matter and shellfish with bread, pasta, chocolate and roast chicken. This behaviour has lead to a lot of animosity towards baboons and has resulted in a number of individuals being shot. yet most Capetonians are happy the baboons are still here and if this attitude prevails, maybe the baboons stand a chance of surviving here.


A baboon enjoying one of two baguettes it snatched from the restaurant at Cape Point (@Callum Evans)


A large male baboon searching for a way into a bakkie at Silvermine. A number of baboons have become skilled at opening car doors (@Callum Evans).


‘I don’t really feel like banana peels today, thank you!’ (@Callum Evans)

There are other less obvious animals that have exploited the opportunities presented by having humans in their backyards. Not far from my house a pair of black sparrowhawks have a nest on the edge of the pine plantation in Tokai Park, where I’ve seen them raise chicks twice over three years. I’ve even seen the female sparrowhawk bring down a pigeon right in front of me. While most animals and plants cannot live in these pine plantation, the black sparrowhawks have actually prospered. Research done by the Black Sparrowhawk Project has shown that Cape Town has gone from having very few breeding pairs to over 50 today, almost all of which nest in plantations, golf courses and greenbelts. This population surge was because these new trees provided the nest sites that were previously in short supply on the peninsula. Additionally, the gardens are full of food for doves, pigeons and other birds which in turn are prey for the sparrowhawks. Black sparrowhawks aren’t the only raptors who’ve taken advantage of this. Peregrine falcons, African goshawks, harrier hawks and rufous chested sparrowhawks have all begun to move in suburbia. Spotted eagle owls, along with barn owls and wood owls, have become a common sight in many peoples gardens and local greenbelts.


A female black sparrowhawk feeding her chicks in a pine plantation right next to suburbs and a equestrian area in Tokai. Black sparrowhawk numbers on the Peninsula have soared with the high number of alien trees in plantations and suburbs in the area (@Callum Evans).


Two spotted eagle owl chicks in their nest at Kirstenbosch Gardens. These owls are adapting quickly to the new environment and are becoming common in certain gardens and greenbelts (@Callum Evans).

The raptors aren’t the only birds being drawn into gardens. One of the popular gardening practises is to provide birds with artificial feeding stations, be it seeds, fruit, nectar or meal worms. My nectar and seed feeders have drawn dozens of double-collared sunbirds, common waxbills, Cape bulbuls and Cape robin-chats and other gardens in my neighbourhood play host to African paradise flycatchers and Burchell’s coucals. Birds are drawn to gardens not only by the readily available food but also by the possibility of nesting in the dense bushes of the gardens. the combination of these two factors has drawn in some really spectacular birds to gardens, including olive woodpeckers, bronze manakins, olive pigeons,  and klaas’s cuckoo’s. In 2012, there was real excitement in the Cape Town birding community when a Pel’s fishing owl suddenly appeared in a garden in Constantia, over 1400 miles from its usual range!

Birds are far from the only garden residents. Reptiles from Cape skinks to Cape boomslangs are making their way from the mountain into well vegetated gardens. Although boomslangs and other snakes are often not welcome, their presence can actually be a blessing in terms of controlling rodent populations. The air vents in my house provide resting spots for a population of over 50 gecko’s, who emerge at night to feed on insects drawn to the lights. Garden ponds can provide homes for Cape river frogs and western leopard toads, as well as dragonflies and damselflies. The gardens love of flowers is always appreciate by the diversity of butterflies, moths, bees and wasps which thrive in the suburbs. They in turn draw in a number of spiders, like orb-web and jumping spiders. Indeed, if managed right, a garden can be a fully functioning ecosystem in itself.


A southern double-collar sunbird visiting my sunbird feeder. Artificial feeders like this are very popular with home owners across the globe, encouraging a variety of bird species to flock to cities (@Callum Evans).


A unusual visitor to a seed feeder: an olive woodpecker (@Callum Evans).


A carpenter bee pollinating a bush growing in a garden. Many nectar-feeding insects have been drawn to gardens by the rich feeding opportunities (@Callum Evans).

There is one resident in the national park that is visiting the peripheries of our cities more and more, and yet we almost never see it: the caracal. About 30 of these medium-sized cats call the national park home, according to surveys carried out by the Urban Caracal Trust, and often their patrols bring them to the edge of the suburbs. they have been recorded visiting the Constantia greenbelts and wine farms, horse farms in Noordhoek and the edges of the University of Cape Town’s Upper Campus. They’ve also begun hunting domestic pets. One of my mom’s friends told her about how her neighbour in Simon’s Town had her cat killed and eaten by a caracal. Domestic cats have been found to take up approximately 5% of the caracal’s diet here. But urbanisation has affected caracals negatively too. Many have been killed while crossing roads and they’ve been discovered to be at higher risk to diseases and parasites than caracals living in open ecosystems. Additionally, because their home ranges are now surrounded by suburbs, inbreeding has become a high risk to this population.

The situation and challenges faced by Cape Town is far from unique. Across the world, certain species of animals have adapted to our cities very rapidly. There are now cougars in Los Angeles, spotted hyena’s in Harar, leopards in Mumbai, and civets and hornbills in Singapore. But these are only a hardy few who’ve been able to thrive. For many species, the urban environment is far too hostile. But it has been proven that if we make our cities more ecologically sensitive and sustainable and allow opportunities for the wildlife to come back, then the rewards for both sides could be huge. However much baboons and snakes may scare us or be a nuisance, we must remember that we’ve invaded their space and not the other way round. They’re simply trying to reclaim that space.


A camera trap photo shows a caracal patrolling a grove of introduced oak trees, with the southern suburbs in the background. Caracals have even been seen in Kirstenbosch gardens, the Constantia greenbelts and even right next to the University of Cape Town. (@Urban Caracal Trust)


The penguin colony at Boulders are not only building nests in peoples gardens and crossing roads, but they are also being preyed upon by the resident caracals (@Callum Evans).


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