Why Everyone HAS to MAS

This is not a race report about personal struggles, climbing a mountain or sliding down a hill on my ass.   It’s a little something about what happens behind the scenes so we get to enjoy the spectacular trails of races like Mont Aux Sources and the Golden Gate Challenge.

I think something all trail runners have in common is a great love for nature and the wonderful landscapes we get to run, climb, traverse and enjoy almost every weekend.  I do however think not many runners know what happens behind the scenes and what all needs to be in place for us to continue running, climbing, traversing and enjoying these spectacular places.  This hit home hard for me this past weekend at the Mont Aux Sources challenge, hosted by Andrew and Lauren Booth from KZN Trail Running.  The 50km race is held in the Royal Natal National Park which is located in the northern part of the Drakensberg which is one of ten Unesco World Heritage sites in South Africa.  It is one of the highest parts of the Drakensberg and is virtually on the border of Lesotho.

What makes this area so special is that it is one of the few places in the world where you still see Bearded Vultures.  With less than a hundred breeding pairs left in South Africa, the rangers and people involved are truly fighting a critical battle with very limited resources.  Over the years Mont Aux Sources in association with Wildlands – Wildtrust, has been donating a large percentage of each entry fee towards the Royal Natal National Park to help with day to day duties and other crucial tasks to help conserve these spectacular animals. The situation became more complicated when Old Mutual withdrew their big sponsorship from all endurance sport in SA which left the race out in the cold. Involvement of the trail community is more crucial than ever to help fill this gap and ensure the conservation effort is sustained.

Before I carry on I have to mention that I have always found Bearded Vultures also known as Lammergeiers extremely captivating and interesting.  When I was a little girl I used to call them Bar-daaaasvoels.  The Afrikaans name which is a direct translation for a Bearded vulture, is ‘Baard Aasvoel’.  I could not read the name properly and just called them Bardaaaasvoels to the great amusement of my parents who raised a little girl who would rather read up about animals than play with Barbies. 

Here are a few facts you maybe didn’t know about Lammergeiers

  • In South Africa there are less than 100 breeding pairs left and in Africa only an estimated 320 breeding pairs.
  • The Bearded vulture really has a beard. It’s made up of tactile, hair like, shaggy feathers that can be compared to cat whiskers and the vultures use them to feel what is underneath while sitting on top of a carcass to feed, but unable to see beneath itself.
  • The iconic orange stains are from mud baths the vultures take.  They are actually white birds and the reasons for the mud baths are not entirely clear. It is speculated that it is related to parasite control or even dominance behaviour. Apparently the drive to take a mud bath is as strong as the drive to feed.
  • The Lammergeier is the only vertebrate that lives exclusively of a diet of bones.  Bones that are too big to swallow are dropped from a great height to break into smaller more edible pieces. 

Back to MAS

On Saturday during the Monties Challenge I came across something that really made me think about the conservation effort inside the Royal Natal National Park.  There has been a lot of speculation about whether the incident was related to poaching or a natural occurrence but I have spoken to a number of experts and my take is that it was not related to poaching.  About seven kilometres into the race there was a carcass of a Mountain Reedbuck which in my opinion was caught either by a Caracal or Leopard.   The mixed reaction from runners got me thinking.  The majority of people immediately thought that it was a poaching incident and others were simply grossed out by it.  Poaching actually never even entered my mind until after when people were discussing the incident.   Of course I was extremely excited when I came across the carcass and immediately took a selfie with the unfortunate deceased antelope.  The reason for my excitement was the fact that this could be proof of big cats in the area doing what big cats do and the remains of the reedbuck would be a perfect meal for the Vultures I saw a few kilometres later.  If we are optimistic and see this as a non poaching incident, the combination of these things is proof that the efforts of the conservationists and rangers involved at Royal Natal, is paying off and the fragile balance needed for predators, prey and the vultures to continue living here is maintained.  Keeping the balance is however a daily struggle and that is why I want to bring to the attention of every runner that enjoys the Drakensberg and the amazing wildlife that calls it home, the need for support.

Conservation is not a glamorous thing and a lot of critical, basic things need to be in place for it to be successful.  Since I have been doing Monties, there has been feedback every year on what exactly funds are used for.  The more simple, but critical things are uniforms for rangers, security upgrades, bush cameras to monitor wild life and check for poachers to name just a few.  The most exciting part of the fund raising project though, is the incorporation of drones in the conservation effort.  This sounds strange until you understand that Bearded Vulture chicks are assholes.  They commit infanticide which means that as soon as the first chick hatches, it kicks the other egg out of the nest.  Over the years, rangers and volunteers had to watch the nests closely to try and see when one egg starts to hatch. It would then be a race against time to rappel down a cliff to save the unhatched egg, keep it warm and get it to a location where it would hopefully be hatched and raised in the hope to be released back into the wild at a later stage.  There are even stories of an egg making its way down the mountain cradled by a passionate ranger on horse back.  The introduction of drone technology to retrieve the second egg would be a much less invasive way to approach the nest and get the egg to its location at the right temperature and in time. 

While I was running the race I wondered how many people who go to Mount Aux Sources during, or even outside the event understand what a battle is fought on a daily basis so hikers, runners and nature lovers can have the majestic birds cast their shadow over them, while making their way up the mountain.  I wondered if people realise they are seeing one or two of only a few hundred birds left in the wild, and that if action is not taken the species will be lost for future generations.

This is why I am not writing yet another story about my struggle up a steep climb, getting out of breath, tripping over a rock, rolling down a mountain or overcoming some personal hurdle.  I really want to try shout loud and extremely clear that if we want to continue enjoying these trails in the way we have over the years we have to take action.  It’s not that complicated.  The partnership between KZN Trail running, Wildlands – Wildtrust and the Royal Natal National Park means if you enter Mont Aux Sources or the Golden Gate Challenge you are already helping, as a part of your entry goes towards their conservation fund.  Also chef extraordinaire Sue Yen Thornhill will be cooking up a storm at Golden Gate where all proceeds from her gorgeous menu will go towards the implementation of the Drone Project.

I think if we continue to run on trails but deny the desperate need for conservation of our sacred places and precious wildlife, we are beyond hypocritical.  If you have seen a Lammergeier soar overhead and don’t feel deeply moved by the possibility of their extinction, you should have a hard look at yourself.  What an amazing opportunity it is to make a difference by doing what we love!?  Hope to see you all at 2019 Golden Gate and 2020 MAS to join my Lammergeier brigade!