Cape Town is unique in many ways, but perhaps the city’s most impressive asset is its proximity to nature. The mountains, oceans and forests that meet the fringes of the city are not only scenically impressive, but are also home to a variety of wildlife.
Although there are fenced nature reserves throughout the Western Cape, there is also free-roaming wildlife that often cross over into the city. The surrounding wildlife usually keeps to itself, but if you intend spending some time on the mountain or in the oceans, there’s a good chance you’ll come across some of these fascinating animals.
What to do if you encounter wildlife
If you do encounter wildlife of any kind it’s important to give it adequate space. For some, this is advice easier to adhere to when the animal is long and scaly, rather than small and furry, but the same principle should always apply. Most of the time, the animal will slither or scuttle off if left undisturbed.
Baboons are one exception, and although they may look cute, they pose a significant threat to visitors. Some of these intelligent creatures have been known to open car doors and steal food from human hands, so it’s important to give them a wide berth and not leave any food visible and unattended. And if you’re thinking of venturing into the oceans, remember you’re in the shark’s territory. If this is something that concerns you, head to beaches monitored by Shark Spotters.
Otherwise, here is the most fascinating wildlife you can encounter in and around Cape Town.
African penguins are perhaps the city’s most famous critters among foreign visitors. They are only found along the coastlines of South Africa and Namibia, usually on remote islands. There are, however, two land-based colonies close to Cape Town – one at Boulders Beach near Simon’s Town, and another further afield at Stony Point in Betty’s Bay. The penguins are vulnerable to extinction, but it’s possible to view these breeding colonies up close at the respective sites. If you pay a visit to Simon’s Town it’s also quite likely you’ll encounter the African penguins waddling around parking lots and on neighbouring beaches.
Visitors to any of Cape Town’s harbours at the V&A Waterfront, Hout Bay, or Kalk Bay can see large Cape fur seals – either flopped on decks, or popping up for the occasional snack provided by fishermen. More intrepid travellers can don a wetsuit and goggles and take to the ocean with one of the city’s seal diving companies. Cape fur seals are one of the most curious and playful mammals, particularly when they are in the water, and males can grow up to weigh an impressive 350 kilos.
The most popular fact quoted about dassies is that their closest living relative is generally considered to be the elephant. It’s a remarkable fact when you consider how small and fluffy these creatures are, but there’s a lot more to love about them: they’re remarkable climbers, thanks to their padded, sweaty feet, and they emit nearly two-dozen vocalisations, from grunts to wails. If you’re eager to see these little creatures, your best bet is to head up Table Mountain – there are hundreds living among the mountain’s many rock faces.
Ironically the common antelope you’ll spot on Table Mountain is an exotic species: the Himalayan tahr. The story goes that two tahrs escaped the now-defunct Groote Schuur Zoo on the slopes of Table Mountain in the mid-1930s. The surrounding terrain was so similar to that of their native Himalayas that they thrived, and several years later they were a common sight across the mountain. In the early 2000s, South African National Parks embarked on a wide campaign to cull the tahrs and greatly reduced their numbers, though recent indications are that several escaped and they are once again growing in number.
The klipspringer is a small, shy antelope that is a rare sight on Table Mountain, though if you venture off on some of the mountain’s less-trodden paths there’s every opportunity of spotting one. Klipspringer – Afrikaans for ‘rock jumper’ – can usually be seen in mating pairs, and you’ll know you’ve seen one if you spot a light brown-coated antelope with short, straight horns and a black spot beneath its eyes. They also live up to their name: they can perch and jump across even the most impossible rock faces, owing to their angled hooves with soft-centre pads.
The African clawless otter, also called the Cape clawless otter, is one of the more elusive breeds that spends time on Cape Town’s coastline. Though the closest most people tend to get to them is their early morning footprints in wet beach sand, particularly on the beaches further away from the city, there have been some recent sightings. Cape clawless otters grow up to a maximum of two metres in length, including tail, and are generally solitary, but they share their territory with up to five others. Your best chance of spotting an otter is to head out early to a beach, like Scarborough or those at Cape Point, and closely watch the shallows for the occasional head to pop up among the surf.
Baboons are fascinating creatures, thanks to their human-like characteristics and remarkable intelligence. They’re common across South Africa, and in the Cape they tend to be the animal that crosses over most with city life. Although they are intriguing animals to watch, they have caused some concerns for residents and visitors – they have been known to strike out when threatened or if food is involved. Recent efforts have pushed many of the troops back onto the mountain, particularly in the south of the peninsula, and if you’re eager to catch a glimpse of baboons you’re very likely to have an encounter in Cape Point.
Cape Town is home to several venomous snakes, including the Cape cobra, boomslang, and puff adder, and it’s not uncommon for hikers or people living on the slopes of Table Mountain to encounter these and other non-venomous species. Fortunately, most snakes tend to disperse long before humans even know they are there, with the notable exception of the puff adder. These camouflaged snakes tend to lie across paths in the sunlight, and it’s common for them to strike after unsuspecting hikers step on them. As such, it’s important to keep an eye out while on the trail, and to give all snakes a wide berth.
Great white sharks
The waters surrounding the Cape are teeming with wildlife, but none as infamous as the powerful great white shark. These massive sharks thrive in the region, thanks mainly to the abundance of prey, and as such they’ve become the stuff of legend and nightmares. Fortunately shark attacks are rare, and with the introduction of Shark Spotters on the city’s main beaches the risk has dropped significantly. If you’re fascinated by the sharks you can get up close to them in total safety by means of a shark cage diving expedition, which usually take place about 90 minutes outside of Cape Town in the town of Gansbaai.
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