-Rea Borcherds

When driving towards Pringle Bay over the past few weeks, the consequences of the recent severe fire is plain and painful to see. What was once flowering fynbos up the hillsides of the Brodie Link, is now a sandy waste of scorched earth.

A fire destroyed three structures after a blaze broke out between Pringle Bay and Rooi Els on 19 March 2017. (Picture: @OverbergFPA/Twitter)

While the fynbos itself recovers fairly rapidly after fire, and indeed benefits from fire – provided it is not too frequent – the creatures, large and small, that inhabited the fynbos do not recover as fast.

Much attention has recently been drawn to the plight of baboons in the Western Cape who lost their habitat during the mountain fires and many of whom suffered severe burn wounds. One infant baboon sadly died after badly burning its little hands.

Organizations like Baboon Matters provide much-needed care for displaced baboons, while traumatised dogs and cats are housed by animal welfare organisations who provide shelter and food, but there are other wild creatures that need succour from the devastation of fires. Our local snake expert, zoologist Francois van Zyl, has considerable experience as a rescuer of snakes, and offers many interesting insights into the disastrous effect on snakes when there is fire in the fynbos.

Snakes smell smoke, and at the first sign of fire, they will move rapidly away from the source of smoke and heat and seek shelter. Mole burrows are able to offer protection, as the heat from quick-burning fynbos fires does not penetrate very deeply into the soil, and snakes can pop into these underground tunnels. However, oxygen depletion can and does occur, asphyxiating the animals.

During a fire, Francois and his team will be on the outskirts, looking out for escaping snakes, so that they can capture them until the danger is past and relocate them when it is safe to do so. The number of snakes emerging from the burning veld can be astounding. On one occasion, while Francois was hiking on the Hangklip, a fire broke out on nearby Seafarm, so he and his companions dropped everything and rushed into the fray. They caught so many berg adders, puffadders and cobras they just hurled them into bags with no time to keep the snakes separate. Francois at one time had a cobra in each hand!

Cape legless lizard, Acontias meleagris

Snakes become very agitated during a fire and can move extremely rapidly (boomslang is the fastest). The so-called legless lizard, Acontias meleagris, which lives in the restios, is not really a snake, although it looks like one and can reach 50cm in length. They are very slow-moving on the ground, and even if they can escape being burnt, they often die from smoke or exhaustion. At Pringle Bay, Francois once found between 40 and 50 that had escaped a fire, lying dead on the road.

Tortoises are the slowest creatures, and seldom survive, although Francois has nursed badly burnt tortoises, sometimes successfully. Mongoose and small rodents that live in the fynbos have their own ways to survive, and have been seen ducking down into damp hollows and streams. During a fire at Rooi Els, Francois saw a whole family of little ‘streep muisies’, escaping the fire by swimming across the river, forming a little chain with each mouse firmly clutching the tail of the one in front of it!

Snakes die in fires as a result of burning, or from being preyed on by predatory birds, while those who escape the flames and seek shelter in houses are very likely to be killed by the nervous inhabitants. After the recent Pringle Bay fire, Francois received several calls to remove berg adders from houses near the region of the fire.

Fynbos creatures may survive a fire only to face another hazard, that of starvation, because the burnt veld cannot provide habitation or food or water. Tortoises for example stand a good chance of starving because flowers and grass form 70% of their diet.

So other suitable habitation has to be found. According to Francois, releasing and relocating snakes after a fire is done with careful thought to maintain the gene pool and diversity. The rule is not to move them (or any animal) further than 20km from the place of origin, and not to cross barriers like rivers and mountains that form natural boundaries. It is important to prevent gene transfer. The topic of gene flow is of great interest to Francois, and forms the subject of his academic research. Thankfully, he is deeply dedicated to saving wild life, and is never too busy to rush to the rescue of animals that most of us would completely overlook.