The Karoo National Park is famous for many wonderful reasons, however in 2015 the most famous reason would be the grand escape of Sylvester the lion, nicknamed “Spook”. Here is a tale to be told on Spook’s adventures beyond the borders of the Karoo National Park.
Although life “beyond the borders” may seem ideal, conservation is all about keeping animals safe. Keeping their bloodlines and sustaining their natural environment. SANParks offers all this to their wildlife with many people giving their whole lives in support of the projects and what they stand for. This exceptional tale is testament to all the hard work, passion, commitment and unity of SANParks and those dedicated to them.
The story begins during the night of the 4th June 2015 when a 3-year old lion escaped from the Karoo National Park, triggering a long and arduous chase lasting 24 days. This event had the nation watching and waiting with bated breath and saw the start of a wild goose-chase involving many devoted individuals, sniffer dogs and even a couple of helicopters and a microlight.
The first day’s spoor was picked up by Cobus, and it was gathered that Spook had more than likely escaped through a gully on the western side of the Park after rain had caused the fence to lift. The spoor showed that Spook had moved toward Layton Primary School where 400m before the school he changed direction and headed for the Nuweveld Mountains.
By day 3 the media had run with the story and Spook was now a nationwide sensation. By now a select team of SANParks’ trackers, Honorary Rangers and various people had “noses” to the ground and were in hot pursuit of their wanderer. One such master tracker was Pokkie Benadie from Graaff-Reinet.
Pokkie grew up in the Karoo and worked as a ranger at the Karoo National Park for many years past and knows the area very well. Nuweveld farmer, Eltrus Mocke, lost 13 sheep in two batches of 5 and 8 to Spook in these fist few days.
Spook tended to stick to a mountainous route on Palmietfontein farm sometimes taking the trackers along dangerous cliffs on his precarious journey. The main challenge, aside from the obvious dangers, was the lack of radio and cell phone reception, making it dicult for everyone to keep in contact with each other.
At day 7 Spook was tracked to moving in a westerly direction over Gert Hattingh’s Kalkfontein Farm and on to the last farm bordering the Frasenburg/ Leeu Gamka road namely, Muggefontein. A brave crossing of the tar road led the lion to the Tafelberg Farm of Oom Willie Marais.
Ensconced in majestic kloofs with attractive names such as Hoedemakerskloof and Wolwekloof, here Spook chose to spend a languid 3 days oblivious to all the drama he was creating. In this time Spook was spotted for the first time in the search and even managed to kill a kudu!
On day 12 the action started to increase as the spoor was picked up on the first farm, Daggafontein, along the plateau above the Nuweveld Mountains – here 3 sheep were killed. Being mid-winter the team would start their day of tracking in temperatures of -2 degrees Celsius facing challenges of locked gates and unfamiliar roads, by which the trackers were greatly assisted by local farmers.
Further aiding in the quest for Spook was the Beaufort West anti-theft unit, Mbuti and Robert, the Mountain Zebra National Park tracker. Bushmen trackers based in the Karoo National Park, Tieber, Nikki and Fransisca also assisted at this stage.
Day 15 saw a Gyrocopter and microlight taking off in the hopes of getting an aerial view of Spook. Kobus Symington assisted SANParks in discovering carcases in order to save valuable tracking time. A dog handler, Simon Steinberg and the state vet from Beaufort West, Bennie Grobler were also brought on-board at this stage.
By day 18 the SAPS (South African Police Services) from Fraserburg had joined the search with everyone putting their heart and soul into this great search. There were so many people who stepped forward to help and provide their special services in one way or another. A brief specific mention should go to Herman and Ronel le Roux of the Kliphuis Guest House in Fraserburg, who accommodated a group of 18 people for a full 2 days free of charge.
On the 24th day of the wide unknown, Spook had travelled approximately 371km and had been spotted a mere 4 times in the search, killed 27 sheep, 1 kudu and 1 Nguni
cow. The start of the capture began about 20km from the Karoo National Park along the steep cliffs of the Nuweveld Mountains. Spook was finally darted by Dave Zimmerman, a SANParks’ veterinarian, from within a helicopter. He was then loaded into a sling while the helicopter hovered dangerously close to the edge of the mountain
with blades no more than 2m from the edge – a risky heart-stopping moment for all.
Spook was own back to the Karoo National Park and released into an enclosure for a wellness check. Spook survived his walkabout in good health and has been fitted with a tracking collar. Every person involved in this adventure discovered unknown strengths and weakness about themselves whilst working as a team often in extreme conditions, all in their common goal to bring Spook home to safety.
The other male lions within the Karoo National Park were making life very dicult for Sylvester therefore provoking his intention to roam. When Sylvester managed to escape from the Park again within a matter of months, fearing for his life SANParks made the decision to move Sylvester to a new home in the Kuzuko contractual area of Addo National Park.
As of the end of May 2016 Sylvester is now safely ensconced in his new home, where with much anticipation from Park authorities, it is expected that he will formally take over the role of lead to a new pride. Here he has the company of two younger lionesses whereby it is hoped that he will reign as king - providing a happy ending to a truly remarkable story.