Back to Africa participates in a sable reintroduction in the Balule Conservancy Limpopo Province South Africa

Wild animals are ranched extensively in South Africa for the ecotourism, wildlife sales and hunting industry. Can ranched animals play a role in species conservation and can these populations serve as insurance for extinction? Is it possible to reintroduce essentially ‘domestic’ or ‘non wild’ antelope into an area occupied by large predators?

Operation Sable Antelope Dinidza

Dinidza ( 24 05 47S and 31 02 17E ) is a 700ha privately-owned game farm situated in the Limpopo Province of South Africa. It is owned by Mr Ian and Hazel Black from Cape Town who have a passion for Africa and its wildlife. Dinidza is historical sable territory. On their own initiative the Blacks decided to embark on a project to re establish a group of sable antelope (Hippotragus niger niger) in the area. It is not possible to procure predator wise animals so the only source was from “ranched animals”. They are under no illusion as to the risks involved. The motive for this project is entirely for the conservation of these special animals, and the costs involved are enormous.

This is an interesting example of essentially ex situ (out of the wild) animals being used for in situ (in the wild) species conservation which is obviously of special interest to Back to Africa.

Back to Africa's Sable Antelope Project

Sable are a charismatic species of great interest to tourists and conservationists. Whilst sable are ranched extensively in South Africa, their status in South Africa’s National Parks is precarious.

For this reason Back to Africa chose sable as its flagship species and embarked on the importation of animals from Blijdorp zoo in the Nederlands, Marwell in the United Kingdom and Dvur Kralove in the Czech Republic. A herd of around thirty animals now run free in the Mokala National Park near Kimberley.

Sable and Roan Antelope in the Kruger National Park

The numbers of sable and roan in the Kruger National Park have diminished considerably recently. Numbers of sable in the Kruger fell from around 2,000 individual’s in 1986 to a recent estimate of slightly more than 300 animals (I.J. Whyte, KNP Scientific Services Report, 2006). Roan numbers in the Kruger have fallen to catastrophically low levels, even with considerable management intervention. Various theories abound as to why this has occurred. These include habitat change, impact of predators encouraged through waterhole introductions, disease and competition to name a few.

Sable and roan are similar Hippotragine (horse like) antelopes. They can in fact hybridize under abnormal circumstances. Are these two species destined to disappear from the Kruger National Park ecosystem? What is the solution to the problem and what can be done to restore populations?

IUCN SSC Antelope Specialist Group 2008.

The Project

Theoretically one should identify the source of original decline before embarking on a reintroduction and certainly this would be the policy of SANParks (South African National Parks) who manage the Kruger National Park. A broad research study coordinated by the Centre for Africa Ecology (CAE) has been involved in researching these declines. Sadly the results of research do not result in a conclusion, allowing for remedial action to address the problem. As a result, it is unlikely that attempts at reintroduction will be considered by SANParks. An attempt at reintroduction would be regarded as an unwise use of resources due to the high risks associated.

The fact that a private individual is prepared to finance an attempt of this nature could be regarded as foolhardy but with the dwindling numbers in the park any attempt should be supported especially if an opportunity for research exists.

Critically this reintroduction in no way impacts on natural sable populations. One should also consider what harm can be done by such an attempt? 

Back to Africa believes any studies that can shed light on the deterioration of such species should be encouraged and it is for this reason we involved ourselves documenting the project and assisting with the post release monitoring. This is an important part of the IUCN Reintroduction Specialist Group guidelines.

All 12 animals were fitted with collars for monitoring purposes. Four GPS collars were fitted and programmed to deliver positional downloads every two hours and the rest were fitted with VHF collars enabling us to triangulate positions using a GPS and hand help compass. The triangulated positions will be integrated using QGIS allowing us to integrate positions on maps

If animals are found dead, organ samples will be collected for histopathology if predation is not the obvious cause of death.

Dinidza is part of the 45 000 ha Balule conservancy which is made up of 8 regions and it is open to the Kruger National Park.

Sable antelope are indigenous to this area with the last ones being captured by a Mr Bekker on the farm Venice in 1992.

Stage 1 of the project

Stage 1 of the project involved the release of a mixture of 4 adult and 8 sub adult males to assess their capacity to survive. If sufficient animals survive, the project would move to Stage 2 which would involve the release of a breeding group comprising males and females.

On the 2nd April 2014 a capture of 12 male sable took place on the farm of Mr Benjamin Osmers in the Gravelotte district close to Dinidza.

Four adult animals running in a camp were darted from an R44 helicopter using a combination of (Thiafentanyl) A30 80 and (Azaperone) Stresnil, and eight younger animals were darted in a boma using the same combination. Recumbent animals were given intravenous ketamine prior to loading in a game trailer with individual compartments. The younger animals were treated with (Zuclopenthizol) Acuphase and all animals were inoculated with vaccines for clostridia, botulism and anthrax. They were transported by road to Dinidza. The trip took 2.5 hours with them arriving at 2.30 pm.

The four larger animals were released immediately a few hundred meters from the Dinidza lodge to run free. The eight younger animals were released into a temporary plastic boma where they were held for two nights. They were released in the afternoon of April the 4th.

The older animals did not stay together and headed in separate directions.

Nine days after release, a solitary adult male was killed close to the Oliphants River some 3 km from the release site. Camera traps set up at the kill site revealed two lionesses feeding on their prey!

Eleven days later a second solitary adult animal was killed in the same area by the same lionesses.

Catherine Shutte, a Cape Town based UNISA nature conservation diploma student moved onto Dinidza on the 26th April. Every day she used the VHF directional aerial a GPS and compass to triangulate positions. Positions of GPS collared animals were also recorded. 

The five younger animals always kept together with the sub adults wandering off on their own and often regrouping.

Thirty eight days after release eight young animals were grouped together. They were resident 3km from the release site in the Palmloop river bed precariously close to a railway line which transports ore from Phalaborwa in the direction of Hoedspruit. This was a worry. Lion and leopard spoor was identified in the area.

One of the adult animals had moved a distance of around 4.5 km from the release site in the direction of Klaserie and also stayed in a dry river bed with residual pools of water from previous rains. He then returned close to the group in the Palmloop.

Another adult remained close to the release site on an adjoining property drinking from a waterhole close to the Dinidza lodge.

As the dry season arrives it is expected water will be the factor determining their choice of habitat and it is expected the risk of predation will be higher.

In anticipation of the project moving to stage 2 efforts are being made to procure females and more males as a breeding group that will hopefully run as a herd.

Critics of course will judge this project negatively and give it little chance of success.

In conservation one has to be adventurous to succeed. So often, an overly cautious approach results in nothing being done at all.  This project creates an opportunity to learn more about the conservation of this special species and understand the issues associated with introducing highly selective, marginal species into managed habitats.


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