LifestyleSANparks Week

Mokala sable has come a long way

If you see one, you should pay some respect.

The large and striking sable is definitely an attention grabber – though for different reasons depending where they are. Just last year, one was sold for a whopping R23 million at an auction. A beast of a bull called Mopanie, it had curved horns of 1.2 metres (48 inches) and was said to be particularly attractive to game ranchers competing to breed the as-yet illusive 60-inch horned sable bull.

It’s thus of little surprise that this valuable species is thriving on game farms, where they are managed intensively to attain best performance. It’s a different matter in the wild, where sables are rare and special sightings. The one exception might be Mokala National Park. Relatively small, in comparison to Kruger National Park, you might very well spot one while driving around.

If you see one, you should pay some respect. Mokala’s sables have walked a particularly long and winding road to get there. It started when Piet Morkel, then manager of the SANParks Wildlife Veterinary Services in Kimberley travelled overseas and noticed an abundance of rare African animals in zoos. He realised they could play a role in the conservation of the species back home, as some of them were exterminated in the wild. The zoos were, perhaps unknowingly, safeguarding the remnant populations.

Sable antelope standing in grassland, South Africa
Sable antelope standing in grassland, South Africa

This is why Back to Africa was born, says director Dr Hamish Currie. The non-profit organisation sources rare animals in zoos to start breeding projects in Africa, in order to restore wild populations where numbers have dwindled. Currie says they chose the sable antelope as their flagship species since these animals are battling on their home-turf, though Back to Africa also moved roan, Eastern black rhinos and Northern white rhinos. It was not without its challenges. Most of these relate to disease, says Currie. An important consideration was whether the animals could withstand the local environment and also, whether they would not introduce diseases onto African soil.

Nevertheless, the first four sables were donated from Blijdorp Zoo, Rotterdam, Netherlands, and arrived at Johannesburg International Airport on January 5, 2002. The three females and one male were transported to Graspan near Kimberley where they formed the nucleus of a breeding unit. Two further groups arrived shortly after. First from Dvur Kralove in the Czech Republic in May of that year and then more from the Marwell Zoological Park in the United Kingdom in June 2003. They now totalled ten individuals, though one of the females was sterile and never bred.

“Most antelope in European zoos originate from Dvur Kralove in the Czech Republic,” says Currie. They were taken there by founder, Dr Josef Wagner, who did many trips to Africa where he caught animals to start his collection. “The sables originally came from Zambia.” Currie adds that all donated animals were subjected to genetic testing before they were imported, and that it was confirmed that they are from the correct African sub-species.

When Vaalbos National Park was de-proclaimed the sables were moved to the Mokala National Park. Nine cows and two bulls were placed in a breeding camp and grew to 23 in 2010. Recent census counts pinned the population at just over 30, according to park manager Deon Joubert. He says that the sables are perhaps not increasing as much as hoped, but that this should happen cumulatively once the population reached a suitable size.

The project raised some debate on home-ground. There is some dispute regards whether sables once occurred in the area which is now Mokala National Park. “Some of the records are very vague,” says Currie, though the park would be on the peripheral zone of where they once roamed. Still, placing the antelope in Mokala gives South Africans and other tourists the rare chance of seeing this charismatic species in the wild.

“Sables are ranched extensively in South Africa in the wildlife industry but most of these animals are managed intensively with supplementary feeding and disease control. Essentially, many of these animals could be regarded as domesticated and are losing the ability to survive under wild conditions. To have created a meta-population of wild running sable in a South African National Park derived from a different genetic strain is an achievement at a time when sables are battling in our national park, ” says Currie.

The Back to Africa programme slowed down is recent years due to new regulations regard the importation of antelope owing to the Schmallenberg virus (that occurs in Europe). “Quarantine requires an insect proof facility in Europe, which does not currently exist,” says Currie. Nevertheless, you are encouraged to enjoy the fruit of their labour, which is roaming around Mokala National Park.

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