The Matobo Hills support the densest known breeding population of Verreaux’s (black) eagle (Aquila verreauxii) in the World, and it is often quoted (possibly erroneously) that the Matopos National Park has the highest leopard (Panthera pardus) density on Earth. Regardless of whether Matopos comes first in these stakes, there is no denying that there are a lot of predators there (even if the furry variety is seen rarely). How can the ecosystem support this?
The short answer is… hyraxes or dassies. Two species of these unusual little herbivores occur in the Matobo Hills –yellow-spotted hyrax (Heterohyrax brucei) and rock hyrax (Procavia capensis). Yellow-spotted hyrax are not infrequently seen climbing trees, whilst rock hyrax tend to remain grounded or feed from rocks. Both species live in colonies, and intermingle quite readily. On occasion, groups of pups of both species have been seen playing together under the watchful eye of an adult of one or other species, which suggests that they share baby-sitting duties.
Life in the wild is tough, though, and hyraxes form the bulk of the diet of Verreaux’s eagles and are probably a major component of other predators’ diets too. Predation is such an ephemeral event that we rarely record evidence of it. For example, in the four years that we’ve been camera trapping in the Park – amounting to nearly 20,000 trap days – we’ve catalogued 65,217 photographs and, prior to June, recorded just one animal (a serval) with prey (a scrub hare). And then in one month we captured two DAYTIME photos, at widely-spaced sites, of leopards carrying dassies! Feast or famine, this camera-trapping business!
So the next time you have the good fortune to be in the Matobo Hills and see hyraxes or hear them alarm-calling, remember that these humble little creatures deserve to be conserved, not only for their own sake, but because they are arguably the lynchpins of the ecosystem.