Mokala – a place of rarities

Mokala National Park is South African National Parks most recently established national park. It was constituted in mid-2007. Mokala is a Setswana name for Camelthorn. This park is located in almost the centre of South Africa in the northern Cape about 80kms south of Kimberley. The northern Cape is a dry region with hot summers and relatively low rainfall.

“You cannot leave Africa, Africa said. It is always with you, there inside your head. Our rivers run in currents in the swirl of your thumbprints; our drumbeats counting out your pulse; our coastline the silhouette of your soul.” ~ Bridget Dore

The ecosystem in the park is characterised as a transition zone between the Kalahari and Nama Karoo biomes. The landscape comprises large grass covered plains contrasted with low ridges and hills. These ridges and hills are formed by andesite larva outcrops and dolerite dykes.

Mokala is also characterised by its soils. The soil types vary from the Hutton red sands to the yellow Clovelly soils. There are sections which are stoney and most of the pans are very clayey.

The major conservation attraction of Mokala is it is a breeding reserve for several rare large herbivores such as Roan antelope, Sable antelope, Tsessebe, disease-free buffalo and both Black and White rhinoceros.

“Wilderness gave us knowledge. Wilderness made us human. We came from here. Perhaps that is why so many of us feel a strong bond to this land called Serengeti; it is the land of our youth.” ~ Boyd Norton

Mokala guarantees sightings of ungulates that are rarely spotted in other parks. Roan and Sable antelope, Livingston’s eland, Tsessebe, Mountain reedbuck and Black wildebeest can be seen in this park. There are no elephants in the park and no predators larger than jackals, and that includes hyaenas. There are wild cats, caracals, genets and even aardwolf. This is not a Big Five park, so for wildlife enthusiasts this is a fascinating place to visit.

A Cape ground squirrel foraging on grass seeds next to the road just below where we were staying at Mosu camp. This squirrel prefers open dry savanna. It is distinctive for its bushy tail which it uses as an umbrella. This squirrel is mainly herbivorous eating grass, roots and bulbs which it collects with its long sharp front paws claws.

The Cape ground squirrel has sharp incisors and strong long claws on its front paws to dig for roots and bulbs.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do” ~ H. Jackson Brown Jr.

A vigilant Yellow mongoose. It dashed across the gravel road only to stop midway to stand on its back legs supported by its tail. This mongoose had a good look around before venturing off the other side of the road. The Yellow and Slender mongooses are found in Mokala.

A Scrub hare sitting in the late afternoon light in the gravel entrance to the waterhole at Stofdam. The afternoon sunlight illuminated this hare’s ears showing all the blood vessels. The Scrub hare’s leverets are born thoughout the year with birth peaking between November and April each year. The leverets are born ready to fend for themselves although parental care does allow suckling for a short period during the night. The large eyes indicate that this hare is mainly nocturnal.

A Leopard tortoise crossing the gravel road. The bony, convex, upper section of the shell is the ‘carapace’ and the flat, lower part of the shell is called the ‘plastron’. The markings of the shells vary with age and wear. The shell is made up of numerous small bones which are covered by separate plates of keratin called scutes. As a tortoise grows, extra layers of keratin are added underneath the existing layer, creating “growth rings”. These growth rings give an indication of age but are not always a sign of annual growth. The Leopard tortoise is distinguished by its high, domed shell with its distinctive yellow and brown spots and radiating circles.

An old warrior. This old eland bull had a broken right horn. His dark coat signaled his old age. Apart from a short rough mane, the eland’s coat is smooth. Females have a tan coat. The male’s coat is darker, with a bluish-grey tinge. The Livingston eland bull has a series of vertical white stripes on their sides (and is found mainly in parts of the Karoo in South Africa). Males also have dense fur on their foreheads and a large dewlap on their throats. This eland bull did not have the whitish stripes on its side so looked to be a Common eland not a Livingston’s eland which can also be seen in Mokala.

A young giraffe calf with the remains of its umbilical cords on its belly. This stout youngster was not far from its mother. There are supposedly no predators larger than jackals in the park, so no lions or hyaenas. It is hard to believe that leopards have not moved into the park given the abundance of food and lack of predator competition.

A South African giraffe. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) have divided the giraffe in Africa into nine subspecies based on range. Each subspecies also has a different pelage pattern. Giraffe thrive in Mokala with all the acacia fauna. There are no elephant in the park so the acacias and camelthorns remain intact.

“Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember and remember more than I have seen.” ~ Benjamin Disraeli

Mokala is known to contain both Black and White rhinos. We did not see any Black rhinos which gravitate more towards the hills. Apart from the difference in the shape of their upper lip, with the White rhino having a square upper lip and the Black rhino having a prehensile tapered upper lip, the White rhino has a flattish back with a bump near the middle, and a large elongated head. The Black rhino is smaller and has a concave back. It has a rounded head and its horns are more upright.

On the Matopi loop we found this female White rhino and her calf. The White rhino prefer the open grasslands where their big broad square upper lip is suited to cropping grass. With White rhinos, the calf usually runs ahead of its mother whereas with the Black rhino, the calf follows behind its mother.

This Tsessebe was having a great time digging it horns and forehead into the mud patch in the middle of the road. In fact the road has detoured around these mud wallows. We came across numerous mud wallows used by ungulates, warthog and rhinos alike. The Tsessebe rut takes place from mid-February to March, and is a time when the bulls perform displays as a part of the mating ritual. The Tsessebe is reddish-brown in colour on the upper body and withers and has a dark face with purplish splotches on the shoulders. Tsessebe is a speedster who can run at a speed of 60 km/h.

A mature male Sable antelope striding through the long grass adjacent to the main road from Stofdam to Lilydale camp. Sable prefer areas of light woodland such as “miombo,” which is a mixture of bush and grassland. These antelope have have beautiful dark brown to black coats which have a slight ochre hue in the sunlight. This male has a major sweep of his scimitar-shaped horns. The older dominant bulls have an even larger sweep of their horns. You can also tell this is a male from his penal bump on his belly.

“It’s Better to Travel Well than to Arrive” ~ Buddha

Both males and females have ringed horns which arch backwards. In females, these backwardly arched horns can reach 61–102 cm, while in males they can be much longer from 81cm to 165 cm in length.

Sable calves are born reddish-brown, with virtually no markings. As they age, the white markings appear, and the rest of the coat gets darker. The older the animal, the more striking the contrast. This antelope is usually found near water, in areas with good drainage and good grazing.

We only saw Roan antelope on our first morning in Mokala at the end of the Matopi loop just below a rocky ridge. Although similar to the Sable, the Roan Antelope has a rufous-grey colouring. It has a different black marking on its face and although bigger in stature, its ringed horns are shorter and less curved than those of the Sable.

This was a young adult Roan antelope lying in the long grass in the shade under an acacia. The long tasseled ears of the Roan antelope are diagnostic as is the black-and-white facemask. Like Sable, the Roan antelope must drink regularly and inhabit areas where water is easily accessible.

This blue wildebeest bull had been rolling and mud-packing in the red Hutton soil.

A close up view of a Blue wildebeest bull in the early morning light. His preorbital gland is clearly evident just below his eye. This gland is rubbed on branches to deposit his scent. Both males and females have a preorbital gland. Mokala also has Black wildebeest but we did not see any in the short time we were there.

The next image shows a warthog boar leaving the remains of a springbok carcass. Warthogs are have a varied diet. They normally eat highly nutritious roots and bulbs but will supplement with bones, soil and stones for their mineral content. They are known to scavenge both the meat and stomach contents from a carcass.

A very young Greater kudu calf stopped in the middle of the road startled by our vehicle. We did not see its mother but she must have been close by in a thicket just off the road.

“The important thing is to never stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing” ~ Albert Einstein

The young kudu bulls appeared to have started “mud-packing”. Even for the young males, once the smell of estrogen reaches them, they start showing off. They are sometimes seen thrashing their horns through mud and bushes. It makes them highly visible and demonstrates their status to each other and the females.

A Red hartebeest seen on Matopi loop. This character had made himself even more red by digging his horns into the red Hutton soil. Red Hartebeest are well adapted for the harsh drier areas. Their narrow muzzle is well suited to picking the best shoots in the tuffs of grass and for occasional browsing.

Remarkably his eyes were clear of red soil. The males of some antelope, like Greater kudu, Eland, Tsessebe and Red hartebeest, are known to rub their horns in mud to make them look bigger and more intimidating. This behaviour is called “mud-packing”.

“Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.” ~ Anonymous

One of the more intriguing aspects of Mokala is the different morphs of springbok which can be seen. The next image is of a Black Springbok in a small herd of normal-coloured springbok. We could not get close to a Black Springbok to get a really good image.

We were also able to find a Copper springbok. This young male had the copper coloured pelage. The copper or caramel colour replaces the white found on the belly of the Common Springbok below the side stripes.

“It is better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.”~ Martin Buber

Copper Springbok is a rare mutation in colour from Common Springbok. Other than the colour variation it has all the same characteristics of the Common springbok. The Copper springbok is unique among the colour phases in that the colour mutation can repeat itself in the first generation.

There are only three species of zebra in sub-Saharan Africa. The Plains zebra inhabits the open savanna plains, the Mountain zebra which prefers mountainous terrain, and the Grevy zebra found in east Africa. The term “Plains Zebra” encompasses the species as a whole. There are subspecies such as Burchell’s. There is no agreement among scientists how many “subspecies” there are.

Quagga were a sub-species of the Plains zebra that were native to southern Africa, but were killed off in the 1880’s to preserve grazing land for settlers. The Quagga Project, based out of Cape Town University, used DNA from pelts along with selective breeding to bring the species back into existence using zebra as surrogates. The brown shading has been showing more with successive generations along with reduced striping. With their white flanks and back legs, they were easy to identify. The Quagga Project is an attempt to use selective breeding to achieve a breeding lineage of Burchell’s zebra (Equus quagga burchellii) which visually resemble the extinct quagga (Equus quagga quagga). (Source:

The Quagga Project started in 1987 as an attempt by a group of dedicated people in South Africa to bring back an animal from extinction and reintroduce it into reserves in its former habitat. DNA analysis has shown that the Quagga was not a separate species of zebra but in fact a subspecies of the Plains Zebra (Equus Quagga) The Quagga, formerly inhabited the Karoo and southern Free State of South Africa. The name “Quagga” is an onomatopoeia from the sound the Quagga makes. 

We visited Mokala in mid-February. There had been good rains in that area and the park looked verdant green with extensive healthy grass plains for the herbivores. The heavy skies created a wonderful moody backdrop while the sunlight illuminated the foreground.

“The eye never forgets what the heart has seen.” ~ African proverb

Not only did we see rare mammal species in Mokala but it also has some interesting avian offerings which I will show in my next post on Mokala.

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

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