Hiking to me means mildly hilly woodland trails, so my surprise upon arriving at Mosselbaai’s most popular spot was mixed with an anxiety that the mountainous terrain would prove to be too much for my Western New York legs. However, two hours later, any sweat from the climb had been soothed away by brine mists that danced up the sheer drops of the jagged rock face and I was convinced the five day Saint Blaize Trail lives up to its reputation as a must for avid hikers and adventure seekers all over the globe.
The trek offers eye catching views for casual walkers as well, with photo ops of seal bounding through foaming waves that crash onto bronze cliffs, a variety of vivid pink, white, red, and yellow wildflowers that help make Mosselbaai a mecca for herbology enthusiasts; gentle fluttering butterflies, glimpses back in time with seashells left behind by ancient natives, and a gradual erosion of rocks to smooth sand. However, the trail’s Oystercatcher Path has more secrets than just stone-scratched caves and untold histories hiding in its hills.
My first initiation with South African wildlife was not the big five in a game reserve, but the elephants’ beaver meets guinea pig meets squirrel relative, the dassie, an oddball that frequents the area. The experience begins in the parking lot when the skittering rock rat stops to give a memorable welcome, zipping back and forth across the worn tar pavement, dashing under green paint chipped park benches, and hiding behind oblivious sneakers. These goofy critters are more than willing to pose for a glamour shot, but the taciturn and trusting attitude of the animal is anything but ordinary. Dassies are natural foragers and due to regular feedings by hikers and uncovered trash cans, the creatures have started to associate humans with an easy meal and are no longer bothered by the close proximity of curious tourists.
South Africa has strict trash and recycling policies in place, and most receptacles are not easily accessible to animals. Mosselbaai requires residents to sort their refuse and dispose of plastics, paper products, and glass properly in the blue bags given to each household by the municipality. With sites like My Waste, finding a center is never an issue, and the city has also set up bins to manage the daily out and about waste. Tourists, however, are not always ready to adapt ritual habits like tossing trash on the ground, picking up dropped items, or feeding wildlife.
Walking the trail, it is easy to overlook innocuous litter while soaking in the scenery, but unfortunately the dassies are not as oblivious. Ice cream containers, snack wrappers, soda bottles: much of this tossed trash offers a tasty treat to the hungry dassie.
Why is feeding the adorable dassie an issue? Studies have shown that feeding wild animals, even those as small as this rock rat, can make the creature lose their fear of people and cause them to become a nuisance as they begin to actively seek out sustenance. Another problem with panhandling meals to wildlife, especially in areas like the Saint Blaize Trail which begins on the edge of a public area filled with restaurants like Big Blue and snack shacks such as The Waffle Hut, is that the creatures put themselves and others into dangerous situations.
A recent example of the effects of introducing human delicacies into wild animals’ diets in South Africa can be seen in the Knysna baboon crisis. What started as a seasonal occurrence has turned into a full scale invasion. Knysna turned into a war zone, with baboons facing off with adult males and killing domestic pets to gain access to a much needed supply of food. Luckily, instead of destroying the dangerous new inhabitants, locals started efforts to coexist with the animals, rendering appetizing items inaccessible and placing locks on bins. The Action Group began to understand the situation, realizing that humans had unintentionally created the problem through the provision of tasty treats to the hungry baboons.
The Saint Blaize Trail dassies, like the Knysna baboons, have begun to evolve into a local dilemma due to the creatures search for grub. The vegetation surrounding the area is minimal, yet the dassie population continues to grow due to the meals of chips and french fries provided. This association with food has already started to cause problems. There have not been instances of dassies stowing away in vehicles near Oystercatcher Path, but there have been several surprised hikers who arrived hoping for sun and scenic views and left with souvenir bites. The animals also have begun to attempt to seek sanctuary beside automobile wheels. Though cute, the dassie can carry diseases like rabies, making what should be an enjoyable experience dangerous for unsuspecting walkers. Also, despite the population growth, the species is at risk of dying out in Mosselbaai due to their new artificial diets, a death that would leave Hyraceum perfume makers scrambling for ingredients and the Saint Blaize Trail lacking its delightful welcome committee.
Dassies have no qualms about getting up close and personal with human visitors, and in time the minor inconveniences may escalate into a much bigger dilemma. While it’s tempting to share a bit of your burger or step over the abandoned bits of rubbish while snapping a panoramic view of the bay to show off on Facebook, take a moment think of the dassie. This creature that made you squeal in childish wonder when you pulled up to Saint Blaize Trail, whose very nature is changing with each human decision that is made, is counting on us to fight for its continued existence.