When we arrived in South Africa, I knew it was the beginning an exciting journey of discovering and learning about new and intriguing African wildlife. But I never expected my first fascination to be… well… a seahorse.
The Cape Seahorse is not just any seahorse but the world’s most endangered seahorse. Its scientific name is Hippocampus capensis, which is literally translated to ‘horse sea monster of the Cape.’ A pretty tiny monster (about 10cm in length to be precise) but apart from that, an apt name if you ask me.
Seahorses are fish that can be easily recognised by their horse-like head and muscular tail that they use as an anchor. An unusual feature of the seahorse is that it has no stomach and so it has to graze constantly as food moves through them so quickly. Another even more impressive characteristic of the seahorses is that the males carry the babies! Yep, I’m talking about a true pregnancy, with internal fertilisation and blood supply to the embryos – the whole shebang! Ahhh, if only I could have married a seahorse.
But jokes aside, this beautiful creature is approaching extinction, and that is primarily due to degradation of their very very limited distribution range. The Cape Seahorse is only found in three southern Cape estuaries: The Knysna, Swartvlei, and Keurbooms estuaries, all of which are within about 60km of each other, along the Garden Route of South Africa. These populations are currently struggling to survive the large temperature and salinity fluctuations of the waters, as well as degradation of the estuaries.
Another threat is poachers exporting seahorses to the Asian market for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Some Asian cultures have credited the seahorse with magical powers and believe that eating dried seahorses will help the fellas with impotence, cure skin problems, asthma, and bedwetting. In 2013, it was reported in the Journal of Food and Drug Analysis, that a study in Taiwan found specimens of the endangered Cape Seahorse among 58 dried seahorse samples which were collected from TCM stores across Taiwan.
On top of this, aquarium enthusiasts who are keen to have a seahorse or two bobble about in their private fish tanks are also contributing to rapid population decline. Which frankly it’s a total balls-up because these beautiful creatures don’t survive well in aquarium environments and soon die.
I have heard among the locals that at low tide people congregate in these estuaries to collect exposed seaweed and return it to the water in hope that they might save any seahorses that may be hanging on for dear life. I’ll be sure to get down there at my next opportunity to check this out for myself.
The Seahorse Research Group from Rhodes University have been quantifying the seahorse populations and habitats here for the last two years. They are advising that if these estuaries are not correctly managed and conserved, South Africa’s only seahorse species may be wiped out for good. Which means, yet another species bites the dust. I just hope there’s still time to turn this around.