By Ross Kettles

The bontebok is one of a handful of antelope species endemic to South Africa. It was once considered to be the rarest antelope in the world. But few people realise there is a local link, in that it owes its survival to the dedicated efforts of the Bredasdorp farming community, including the ancestors of members of the Nuwejaars Wetlands Special Management Area (NWSMA).

As early as 1837, a local farmer, Alexander van der Bijl fenced off an area on his farm Nacht Wacht to protect some of the last surviving bontebok. 

A plaque commemorating this event can still be seen along the road between Bredasdorp and Arniston. By the late 1920’s, only an estimated 30 individuals remained. Efforts in the late 1930’s saw P.K. Albertyn make land available to the then National Parks Board on the farm Zeekoevlei, close to the De Mond estuary. Seventeen bontebok were herded by men on horseback to this 700-hectare refuge.

The population grew steadily, and by 1938, it was estimated that the population stood at 100 animals. Due to this area not being ideally suited to hosting bontebok during rainy years, the bontebok were moved to the Bontebok National Park in 1960. Today, they number an estimated 3 500 – with a good number occurring on the landscapes around Bredasdorp, including the NWSMA. In fact, bontebok, which is still listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List, remains a species that we actively monitor and protect in the NWSMA

What caused the initial decline in bontebok numbers?

Because they competed for grazing with domestic animals, they were often seen as pests, and as a result, were hunted extensively. Later, as formal agriculture was established in the area, they began losing suitable habitat to the plough. In the Overberg, habitat loss remains their single biggest challenge. Today bontebok occur in small, isolated populations and are threatened by low genetic diversity, population fragmentation, habitat fragmentation and hybridization.  

Most of the vegetation types that constituted their original habitat are classified as Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered. That means that around 70% of the habitat is threatened. Less than 10% of the original extent of renosterveld within the natural distribution range of the bontebok still remains. 

Regarding the threat of hybridization, strict protocols are now in place to prevent this from happening with blesbok. All bontebok being relocated to new areas require mandatory genetic testing.


What are the differences between bontebok and blesbok?

Blesbok differ from the bontebok by having less white on the coat and the blaze on the face, which is usually divided, the coat is also a lighter yellow than that of the bontebok.

Furthermore, blesbok are endemic to southern Africa and prefer open grasslands, from the Highveld north of the Vaal River through to the Free State to the Eastern Cape. Bontebok on the other hand are endemic to the renosterveld and coastal fynbos of the Southern Cape.

Today the bontebok is recognised as an iconic flagship species for the protection and conservation of the renosterveld and coastal fynbos vegetation. The future of the bontebok looks a lot brighter now due to the collaborative efforts of Provincial and National Parks, as well as landowners who care and choose to protect them.

What we’re doing in the NWSMA to protect them

Bontebok need large, open areas to move across to thrive. On private land, this is usually impossible, given farm boundaries. But we’ve made this possible across the Nuwejaars Wetlands Special Management Area, where bontebok can transcend these man-made boundaries. 

What’s more, in order to keep our bontebok population strong in the NWSMA, we need to ensure their genetic diversity is maintained. That’s why we actively monitor and manage our herds. We regularly move individuals to different herds in large operations that require a team of experts, including experienced veterinarians. These operations, while costly, are vital to ensure we can contribute to a healthy population of bontebok in South Africa.

This article was first featured in the Suidernuus newspaper.