Mysterious glowing animals started to appear along a densely forested road near Cape Town about six months ago. Now Table Mountain butterflies, a ghost frog, a Cape chameleon and a flurry of birds – all endemic to South Africa’s Western Cape – are represented among the eye-catching menagerie of 40 art pieces lighting up Rhodes Drive at night.
The Endemic Project is an immersive art and sound installation designed by local artist and filmmaker Bryan Little, who hopes to heighten people’s awareness of the unique wildlife in the surrounding areas of Cape Town, some of which is endangered or critically endangered.
Drivers are encouraged to download a free geotagged soundtrack and play it at the first artwork while driving at 50km (31 miles) per hour for the full experience. The drive lasts for about five to six minutes.
I couldn’t believe the response. It was hugely popular immediately.
Mr Little did not seek permission from any authority to mount his self-funded project, but says to date he has not received any complaints.
He created the animal artworks using reflective tape, so as cars move along the otherwise dark 7km (4.3 mile) stretch of mountain road, the different species light up under headlights, while the accompanying audio tour, created by sound designer Sylvan Aztok, uses atmospheric music, sound and animal calls.
Click play below to listen to an excerpt from The Endemic Project audio tour.
“Right in amongst the city you’ve got this incredibly kind of primitive road. It’s so dark and eerie and mysterious, and quite beautiful actually,” Mr Little tells BBC Earth.
He explains he hopes to inspire people and make them feel “wonder again for the natural world”, by asking the question: “What does it actually mean to have something that is endemic to your area?”
It’s kind of a way to make someone feel something for something they might never otherwise see
He adds he had been concerned about the installation being a hazard for drivers, so carried out a testing phase. “I placed them very carefully so that people can see them from a way away.”
He hopes the final result will momentarily “transport people outside of their mundane commute” and into “a mindset of that pure magic”.
On one side of Rhodes Drive is Table Mountain National Park, a beauty spot and important zone for biodiversity, and an area which Mr Little’s father helped to create, igniting the artist’s own interest in conservation. Table Mountain itself, which towers over Cape Town, is home to about 1470 floral species, of which over 70% are found only on the mountain.
The national park is also home to diverse animals including chacma baboons, rock hyraxes (or rock badger) and a rare land-based colony of penguins.
However it is 16 species endemic to the region’s 'fynbos' – a shrub and heathland vegetation type of extremely concentrated biodiversity – that Mr Little has chosen to represent in his instillation.
These include the nectar-loving orange-breasted sunbird (Nectarinia violacea), an important pollinator of fynbos plants. Males in particular are notable for their beautiful colouring, and sport bright, metallic green heads, throats and backs.
Another featured animal, the geometric tortoise (Psammobates geometricus) is named after its exquisitely patterned shell, but is endangered, and believed to be among the 25 most threatened tortoises and freshwater turtles in the world. Its drastic decline in recent decades has been associated with increased predation and frequent wildfires.
Even more threatened is the Table Mountain ghost frog (Heleophryne rosei), which lives in a very restricted range of forest and fynbos heathland on the southern and eastern slopes of Table Mountain, and is thought to be in ongoing decline.
Fynbos does not support large animals, but one mammal to appear in the artworks is the Cape grysbok (Raphicerus melanotis), a small antelope which unlike some of its fynbos co-inhabitants is locally common and adaptable. These mainly nocturnal creatures are rarely seen however, as they are often under the cover of thick vegetation.
The reaction to The Endemic Project from Cape Town residents has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Mr Little.
“I couldn’t believe the response. It was hugely popular immediately.”
Priya Reddy from the City of Cape Town, the authority responsible for Rhodes Drive, adds: “The City prides itself on the creativity of its residents. We welcome any initiative that enhances the aesthetic beauty of Cape Town and further highlights our commitment to innovative design.”
An important part of The Endemic Project is that some of the animal artworks might be stolen, because it reflects the “feeling of loss” of an animal species going extinct in real life, explains Mr Little.
“It’s kind of a way to make someone feel something for something they might never otherwise see, you know, like a geometric tortoise or a ghost frog, you have to be fairly lucky to see something like that.
“But with this project I can... almost manipulate that feeling of loss for them so that it becomes less abstract, this idea or notion of species extinction.”
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