The mighty Roan antelope
© Peter Dollinger
To breed and reintroduce roan antelopes into their former range in Swaziland
The range of the roan antelope (Hippotragus equinus) includes 32 sub-Saharan African countries. Overall, the species is rated as "lower risk - conservation dependent" by the IUCN; however, they have become extinct in Swaziland, where the last autochthonous roan antelope died in a snare in 1961. They were classified as threatened with extinction in Mozambique already in the mid-1970s, and are vulnerable in Zimbabwe and rare in Botswana and Namibia. Roans have become also a conservation priority in South Africa. While, in 1996, the species was classified as a low risk, conservation dependent species by the IUCN, the new (2004) IUCN Red Data Book of the Mammals of South Africa classifies it as vulnerable. In the Kruger National Park, roans have dwindled from 450 individuals in 1986 to less than 53 individuals, and attempts at reintroductions using animals from Zimbabwe (Tjolotjo) and Percy Fyfe were unsuccessful. Today the best localities to see roans in South Africa are at the Nylsvley Nature Reserve near Modimole (Nylstroom) where, according to the IUCN Red Data Book of the Mammals of South Africa, their number fluctuates between 50 and 42 individuals, and the Percy Fyfe Nature Reserve near Polokwane (Potgietersrus).
Roans are grazers and by preference do not feed lower than approximately 15 cm from the ground. Optimal habitat thus consists of open medium to tall grasslands fringed with an ecotone of woody vegetation. These habitats are particularly well represented by the shallow, grass-covered drainage systems associated with miombo (Brachystegia) woodlands.
The exact reason for the recent decline of the roan antelope in certain conservation areas is not entirely understood, and speculations refer to high susceptibility to predation, competition from short grass grazers such as zebra or wildebeest, loss of genetic diversity, but any stress factor for whatever reason, could result in disease of one sort or another. A theileria preliminary named Theileria sable has recently been implicated in causing mortalities in roan on ranches in South Africa.
With a donation from the Marwell Zoological Park in the UK, three females and one male roan antelope were introduced into the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, one of Swaziland's Big Game Parks in December 2003. A further group of four females and one male donated from the same institution joined them in November 2004. All the females have been covered and the first calf was born on 15 March 2005.
Another source of roan antelopes for the project is Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic, which joined the project in 2007. Dvur Kralove Zoo is a longstanding successful breeder of this species. During 40 years a total of 316 calves (128,188) were born at Dvur Kralove Zoo. In January 2008 the zoo kept 25 roans, representing the biggest drove of this species in all the world´s zoos. In 1999 a first transport of ten (3,7) young roans to Africa was prepared, and until 2007 five transports containing 26 (9,17) roan antelopes were organised.
For this year (2008) the sixth shipment of roans - the first one to Swaziland - will be sent, and this could be the beginning of a new period of Dvur Kralove Zoo's reintroduction endeavours which will consist in supplying periodically zoo-bred roans to the three Swazi parks, but also participating in the post-release monitoring.
Previous reintroduction attempts of roans from Namibia to Swaziland were unsucessful due to mortalities from a tick-borne disease called theileriosis. The animals from Europe are therefore first kept in a quarantine enclosure at Mlilwane, and successively adjusted to living under wild conditions, but still in as strictly controlled environment. This always takes some time as they will need to build up an immunity against certain diseases. Vaccinated progeny of the imported animals will then be released into the Mlilwane North and Mkhaya Reserves, and eventually into Hlane Royal National Park.
WAZA Conservation Project 04026 is implemented by Back to Africa and Big Game Parks and supported by Dvur Kralove Zoo.
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© Peter Dollinger