Thursday, October 6, 2016

Media Darling Sylvester Moves On

Michael (for Stan) - Thursday

Stan has left the US and is stuck in a third world country with shaky internet. (No, he didn’t fly home to Cape Town; he’s with Mette in Denmark.) So here’s a little piece about a one time resident of the Karoo National Park, where I spent last weekend. Don’t worry; unlike my usual environmental pieces, this one has a happy ending.

Gemsbok in the Karoo National Park
The Karoo National Park is a 350 sq mile area which is broken into a number of disconnected pieces, each covering a section of the Great Karoo—a large semi-arid region in the center of South Africa punctuated by characteristic koppies, small hills usually with rock caps. The sections each protect a particular ecological niche and, as with all desert regions, there are many interesting and endemic species of animals, birds, reptiles and plants. Some of the larger animals that were common there in the past have been reintroduced—Gemsbok, Hartebeest, Mountain Zebra. There's even a small population of the Plains Zebra that has been bred back towards the now extinct Cape subspecies called the Quagga.

Mountain Zebra
Quagga look alikes
The largest section is just outside the unofficial capital of the Great Karoo—Beaufort West—and is the section that tourists can access in ordinary vehicles. There is also a small tourist camp with thatched units facing the imposing Karoo escarpment.

And there are lions. Also reintroduced some time ago, partly to control the larger herbivores who are confirming their adaptation to this environment with burgeoning numbers, and partly, no doubt, to appeal to tourists. Enter Sylvester.

Sylvester (right) with two not such good friends
A really magnificent lion, Sylvester was supposed to beef up the Karoo lion gene pool. Unfortunately the lions in charge when he arrived were a bit dubious about that idea and he got a somewhat cold shoulder. Then, just over a year ago, the Karoo experienced the sort of huge downpour and flooding rivers that happens very infrequently, but is very dramatic when it does. The rushing water opened a large hole in the fence, and Sylvester decided to look for greener pastures. A farmer spotted his tracks and put out bait for him, but Sylvester ignored that and helped himself to no less than eight of the farmer’s sheep instead. Karoo lamb is regarded as the best in the country and Sylvester was happy to confirm that for himself. Eventually he was recaptured, and for a while things returned to normal.

Tourist camp at the Karoo National Park
Then this Easter another opportunity presented itself, and Sylvester went walk about again. But now he knew two things. One, Karoo lamb is excellent; two, keep out of sight. He led the National Parks people a merry chase and held onto his freedom for a month before master tracker Pokkie Bonadie traced him to a bush where he had been hiding. He was darted and unceremoniously returned by helicopter to the Karoo National Park.

This looks even less comfortable than commercial economy seats
Sylvester awaiting sentencing
In the meanwhile, he'd become a media darling, well followed on Twitter. So there was an outcry when the authorities categorized him as ‘a problem animal’ and announced that he was to be put down. (Well, he had made them look rather foolish and taken out more than 30 livestock in the process.) According to one lady we spoke to in Beaufort West, the whole town turned out to demonstrate and toy-toy - a protest dance made famous in anti-apartheid days. Sylvester was not 'a problem animal,' they said. He was a hero!

The authorities relented, thought it through, and decided that Sylvester would be an ideal addition to the new lion pride they were building at the Addo National Park in the Eastern Cape. There's an interesting story there too, as the females earmarked for him are two cubs whose mother died after being bitten by a snake, and who managed to survive on their own for several months before being rescued. So Sylvester is settling into his new home, and getting acquainted with his new family - a family of opportunistic survivors.

Sylvester's new mates
The Eastern Cape is famous for its delicious high quality beef. Watch this space!


  1. Great story, Michael. All it needed, to go with Sylvester, was a Tweety Bird. (Or did I mistake Tweety Bird for a helicopter?)

    1. The Karoo park is full of ostriches who may qualify. Sylvester likes lamb though!

  2. Love this story! The townspeople turned out to save Sylvester, even dancing. And they think of him as a hero. (Now this almost erases the horrors of Cecil's killing.)
    I hope this magnificent cat has a good life and family in the park in the Eastern Cape.

    But which herbivores are overpopulating

    1. Thanks, Kathy! We loved the story too.

      The Karoo is very sparsely vegetated although that vegetation is very rich in protein. Hence the enthusiasm for sheep and the antelope species adapted to the area. Problem is that the areas set aside for the national park - and the struggle to get it created is a story in its own right - are relatively small and fenced. Still, they seem to have got the balance right: the vegetation looked healthy and not overgrazed. By contrast the bush area in the north - Kruger National Park area - is in very poor shape after a bad drought. Pity we can't swap for some of that rain in Florida right now...

  3. Michael, What a charming story, so beautifully told!! Of course, my longing for Africa is now at fever pitch. And that camp at Karoo looks so VERY inviting. What's it like there in early March? I am being serious!!

    1. It really is worth a visit if you drive between Cape Town and Johannesburg. It will be very hot in March though. (I would have said the same about October; it was maximum 65F and minimum 36F!)
      We need to chat about March offline!

  4. Nice to see some common sense prevailing. Are these sensible people allowed to vote more than once in elections....

  5. I'm seriously disappointed the EvKa didn't launch in on some riff about Sylvester "taking it on the lamb" or in his new digs likely "getting into a beef" Frankly, I'm just happy Sylvester found new folks to hang out with before the season changed. It seems a good sign for his future, one in keeping with the old adage, "pride cometh before the fall."

    1. I didn't want to steal all your lions because I know how much you like to kid around.

    2. Despite myself I have to say that you two are good value!
      And I pride myself on separating the sheep from the goats.

    3. I feel sheepish asking, but any opportunity to get Jeff's goat is worth the risk: which one am I and which one is Jeff?

  6. As Cleopatra once said--or should have--"If you have to asp...bite me."