Roan Antelope (Hippotragus equinus) are also a conservation priority in Southern Africa with numbers in the Kruger National Park having dwindled to less than 53 individuals.
Back to Africa, in conjunction with the Marwell Zoological Park, Winchester, United Kingdom, introduced Roan Antelope into the Mlilwane Game Reserve in the Kingdom of Swaziland. This occurred on the 23rd of December 2003. Another five arrived in November 2004 and another three from Zoo Dvur Kralove, Czech Republic, in 2008.
There are now more than thirty animals in the project. This species is a conservation priority in Southern Africa with numbers in the Kruger National Park having dwindled to less than 53 individuals. Similar declines have been noticed in other African countries including Kenya where a remnant population exists in the Ruma National Park. Roan Antelope are extinct in Uganda. However these genes are alive in European zoos with most of the Roan Antelope in these zoos originating from this country. This genetic strain of Ugandan Roan is back in Africa as a result of our activities.
Roan Antelope formerly occurred in family groups over a wide part of Swaziland, which included the Lubombo Mountains, the Malindza and Dumezulu Hills and the western highlands, all of which vary between elevations of 1000' and 5000' above sea level. Roan Antelope favoured habitats of open grassland embraced by wooded fringes and broadleaved savannah with the dominant grasses being varied Hyparrhenia species and Themeda triandra which are locally termed semi-sour to mixed veld, and are prolific on Mlilwane – particularly in the north of the park.
Also of interest are some of the old historic Afrikaner place names, (no longer in use since independence) like Gemsbokvlei, Gemsbokkop and Gemsbokbos, which can only be a referral by abbreviation to baster Gemsbok, literally meaning “half Gemsbok”, this being the Afrikaans name for Roan Antelope (the facial pattern of Gemsbok and Roan are not dissimilar). Gemsbok is the Afrikaans name for Oryx, which only occur in the western arid regions of South Africa and Namibia and not in the wetter parts of Eastern Africa.
Ted Reilly the director of Big Game Parks actually recovered what is thought to be the remains of the last Roan Antelope in a snare at Maphiveni in 1961. He also saw small herds of them at Maphiveni and at Sikhupe in the Malindza Hills in the 1950’s. They had vanished from the western highlands much earlier.
The objective of the project is re-establishing a free ranging population of Roan Antelope in the Mlilwane and Mkhaya reserves in the Kingdom of Swaziland. A new metapoulation has been created in Africa at a time when this species is in trouble in Southern Africa. The re-introduction will assist in restoring natural biodiversity, which in turn will provide long-term economic benefits to the local and national economy and promote conservation awareness.
Operation Roan Antelope is taking place in two stages:
1) Stage 1 is the reintroduction of zoo born Roan into a controlled environment at Mlilwane Game Reserve in the Swaziland middleveld.
2) Stage 2 is the reintroduction of vaccinated progeny in situ into Mlilwane North and into the Mkhaya Reserve in the Swaziland lowveld. Mkhaya is a refuge for the propagation of threatened and endangered species. It is a managed conservation area with different species being contained in camps to facilitate their management.
The issue of Roan genetics has been a topic of discussion for years by conservation authorities in Southern Africa and conclusion has been reached as a result of recent expert opinion of Alpers, Arctander, Robinson that suggests there are only two subspecies of Roan that being the West African (koba) and the rest. All imported animals were tested at the University of Stellenbosch which confirmed the origin being East Africa. This is consistent with studbook records. These animals fall into the “rest” category making them acceptable for reintroduction into Southern Africa. In any event there are no indigenous Roan Antelope left in Swaziland so there is no risk of genetic pollution of existing populations.
Most zoo reintroductions have to deal with inbred populations. In this case an out breeding program has been initiated using locally sourced unrelated bulls. New bulls are being used with each generation correcting any problems associated with inbreeding. In any event there are numerous examples of genetic bottlenecks that have resulted in robust populations so one should not always regard this as a reason not to proceed. Examples include White Tailed Deer in Finland and New Zealand, European Bison in Poland/Belorus, Himalayan Tahrs in South Africa and Alpine Ibex in Switzerland.
Previous attempts to introduce Roan into Mkhaya using Namibian Roan was unsuccessful due to a then unknown protozool disease that has subsequently been identified as Theileria hippottragi. Working in conjunction with the University of Pretoria a vaccine has been produced to deal with this fatal disease. The red legged tick Rhipicephalus evertsi that is the vector for Theileriosis was not present in the area in Namibia and these Roan were susceptible and immunologically naïve.
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