Bontebok thrive at Vergelegen wine estate

Two of the nine newborn bontebok on Vergelegen wine estate.

One of the rarest antelope species in Southern Africa is thriving on Vergelgen wine estate in Somerset West, which welcomed nine newborns to its now 50-strong bontebok herd this summer.

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 2 500 and 3 000 bontebok world-wide.

“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, according to Vergelegen environment manager, Eben Olderwagen. Each group consists of one ram and seven to eight ewes, with the nine newborns distributed among them. 

Another five young rams travel 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 Mr 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 complement the biodiversity of the 3 000-hectare estate – of which 1 900 hectares were declared a private nature reserve last year – and have also played their
part in  pioneering social studies, says Mr 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 Mr 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.”