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During the past few centuries, culminating in the Victorian era of the late 19th century, European obsession with exotic wildlife saw thousands of animals from Africa being transferred to the zoos of the northern hemisphere.
Now some of the descendants of those animals are helping to save the original populations from possible extinction.
One such animal is the majestic sable antelope, and last month four young animals derived from genetic material imported from European zoos were released into the Mapungubwe National Park in Limpopo.
“They represent the first stage of re-establishing the extinct population in Mapungubwe as part of our `Back to Africa` initiative,” explained Constantia veterinarian Hamish Currie.
Currie is a driving force behind Back to Africa, an organisation dedicated to relocating rare and endangered African species from zoological institutions world-wide and bringing them back to this continent.
Sable antelope (Hippotragus niger) were once widespread in the bushveld areas of the former Transvaal, he explains. In the 1940s, it was estimated that there were more than 36 000 of them in the lowveld outside the Kruger National Park.
Today, there are fewer than 250 sable left in the Kruger National Park itself from about 2 000 10 years ago, and they are extremely rare outside the park.
“Other species such as the roan antelope and tsessebee face a similar decline,” he said.
Back to Africa was able to import 10 sable from three European zoological institutions in Britain, then Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands, in 2002.
These animals were taken to South African National Parks’ breeding facility at Graspan, near Kimberley, where they have formed the nucleus of a breeding unit that will be used to stock various protected areas in South Africa where numbers of this species have dwindled.
So far, 11 calves have been born.
“The Graspan population can be regarded as an important `meta-population` that is an insurance for their survival in South Africa’s national parks,” said Currie.
Mapungubwe National Park, previously called the Vhembe Dongola National Park, is located at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers and covers more than 28 000ha.
It is one element in a transfrontier “peace park” initiative with Botswana and Zimbabwe.
Four youngsters have been released and have been fitted with satellite collars and are being monitored by Back to Africa staff in a research project to study their adaptability back to the wild.
“This timeous study will embrace veterinary and ecological aspects, and will work in collaboration with leading academic institutions in South Africa and elsewhere.
“Results will be compared to studies already under way in the Kruger National Park where numbers of this species have dwindled to alarmingly low levels,” said Currie.
Further animals will be introduced in 2007 and 2008.
One risk factor is the tickborne disease, Theileriosis.
Back to Africa is already working on this disease on a group of roan antelope imported into Swaziland from the Marwell zoological Park in the United Kingdom.
“This disease has caused mortalities in sable antelope, so this study will be done in collaboration with the veterinary study under way in Swaziland, says Currie.