One of the rarest antelope species in Southern Africa is thriving in the unexpected setting of a Somerset West wine estate. Vergelegen, which hosts 100 000 local and international visitors annually, has welcomed nine newborns to its growing bontebok herd this summer.
There are currently 50 bontebok on the 319-year-old estate, which was acquired by Anglo American plc in 1987.
Bontebok (Damaliscus pygargus pygargus) are recognisable by purplish highlights on their sleek chocolate-brown coats, a white rump patch, and a white blaze on their faces. They once roamed the Southern Cape in large numbers, but hunting decimated them to only 17 in the world. These animals were saved by the van der Bijl and other farming families, and in due course the Bontebok National Park was established. There are now between 2500 and 3000 bontebok in the world.
“We first welcomed 13 bontebok to the estate about 10 years ago,” says Vergelegen CEO Don Tooth. “Our conservationist at that time, Gerald Wright, was on the advisory board of the Helderberg nature reserve. He and City of Cape Town vet Dr Elzette Jordan noted that the reserve was becoming overpopulated with bontebok.
‘There was insufficient grazing to support all the animals. Some mineral deficiencies, especially zinc and possibly copper, were also becoming apparent. The animals were captured and transferred to us, with the understanding that nine antelope would always belong to the City.”
The buck were treated for ecto-parasites and given copper and zinc supplements, and have since thrived on the estate’s lush indigenous and pasture vegetation.
There are now three breeding groups established on the estate, says Vergelegen environment manager Eben Olderwagen. Each group consists of one ram and seven to eight ewes, with the nine newborns distributed among them. Another group of about five young rams travels together, after being chased out of the herds by other bontebok, while more young rams roam the property in small groups of two or three.
“They are completely free roaming,” says Olderwagen. “I monitor them regularly and if we note something is wrong then we will arrange for treatment, but other than this they look after themselves.”
The animals not only complement the biodiversity of the 3000-hectare estate – of which 1900 hectares were declared a private nature reserve last year – but have also played their part in pioneering social studies, says Tooth.
Some years ago, Dr Anja Wasilewski of Marburg University in Germany researched bontebok at Vergelegen and the Tygerberg and Helderberg nature reserves. Dr Wasilewski investigated their social bonds, relationships, scent communication and use of space, leading to greater understanding of the bonteboks’ complex social systems.
“The Vergelegen team is proud to have played a small part in helping ensure the sustainability of this outstanding antelope breed,” says Tooth. “Care for the environment is key at the estate. Vergelegen was the first Biodiversity and Wine Initiative champion back in 2005, and we are committed to making the estate a prime destination for future generations to enjoy.”