Selati: Roan Antelope

The title of this post is not strictly accurate as we did not see Roan antelope in the Selati Game reserve. Rather we went across the main road to a game breeding farm where we saw the selective breeding of buffalo, Sable and Roan antelope. The area around Selati Game Reserve is well known for its game breeding activities.

“The fact is that no species has ever had such wholesale control over everything on Earth, living or dead, as we now have. That lays upon us, whether we like it or not, an awesome responsibility. In our hands now lies not only our own future, but that of all other living creatures with whom we share the Earth.”~David Attenborough

Roan antelope are now considered a locally rare species. In South Africa there are only about 70 in the Kruger National Park, and a total of several hundred in other conservation areas in Mpumalanga and the Northern Province and the northern Cape.

“Because it is most endangered, the Roan has become the poster species for the rare antelope’s plight. Although one of the most wide-ranging antelope species in sub-Saharan Africa, occurring from sea level to 2400 metres, its strict requirements mean that the Roan is nowhere common. ~ Mitch Reardon

We went down to a waterhole on the breeding farm on the other side of the R40 from Selati Game Reserve to see the Roan antelope and were fortunate to see four young Roan.

Roan is one of biggest antelope after the Eland, Bongo and Greater Kudu. Its barrel-chested, horse-like build gives it a powerful appearance. Their pelage is a reddish-brown colour which gives them their name. Roan are sometimes mistaken for a female Sable because of its similar shaped face and reddish colour. A closer look show different colouring and the black and white pattern is quite different.

The Roan antelope shares the Hippotragus genus with the Sable and as its greek name suggests the shape of a horse with a goat-like face. They have short, erect manes, very light beards and prominent white nostrils. The head is dark brown or black, with white around the mouth and nose, large white patches in front of the eyes and pale patches behind them. The ears are long and narrow, with dark brown hair at the tips. The horns are ringed and backward facing. They can reach one metre long in males, and slightly shorter in females. The Roan’s horns never attain the full scimitar shaped curve horn of the mature male Sable. Unlike the Sable, the Roan has long tasseled ears.

From data back in 2014, there are an observed 333 individuals existing on nine formally protected areas within the natural distribution range in northern and eastern South Africa. Adding privately protected subpopulations, there are an estimated 1 750 individuals across South Africa of which an estimated 5% of individuals on wildlife ranches were estimated to be wild and free-roaming. The proportion of mature Roan is estimated to be between 60% and 70%.

For a similar reasons to the Sable and Tsessebe, the Roan antelope population in the Kruger National Park crashed by 90% during the period 1986 to 1993. Over the past three generations (1990–2015), based on available data for nine formally protected areas, there has been a net population reduction of around 23%, which indicates an ongoing decline, though not as severe as the historical reduction.

The Roan antelope has been eliminated from large parts of its former range through Africa because of poaching and loss of habitat due to the expansion of human settlements. Habitat loss and degradation within the historic ranges are the greatest ongoing threat to Roan antelope. Their natural habitat has become fragmented caused by agricultural expansion. The game fences associated with human settlements have also contributed to their habitat reduction as have their removal from the wild into small breeding camp systems on private ranches.

“To appreciate better how a succession of changes within the rare antelope’s ecosystems coalesced to become a conservation catastrophe, it is critical to recognise that every ecosystem has it’s own special characteristics.” ~ Mitch Reardon

‘The narrow muzzle of the Roan and Sable have evolved to pluck specific clusters of leaves from grass swards. Roans feed on a variety of different grass species in different parts of their range at different times of the year. Low density antelopes such as Roan and Sable have distinct habitat preferences, their patchy distribution ranges generally occur in landscapes least favoured by the more common grazers. Source: Shaping Kruger by Mitch Reardon

Habitat suitability is declining in South Africa due to bush encroachment and overgrazing. The latter reduces grass species composition and encourages bush encroachment in certain areas of the bushveld. The game fences limit the Roans’ ability to move away from unsuitable grazing areas. Fragmentation through fencing also reduces the ability to move away from areas that become unsuitable. Climate change will most likely increase bush encroachment and dry up the ephemeral wetlands needed by this species in southern African savannahs.

“You’ll never find a rainbow if you’re looking down” ~ Charlie Chaplin

Roan antelope prefer to graze on grass but will browse if grazing forage is poor and will resort to supplementing on shrubs, herbs, and Acacia tree pods. The preferred feeding height is 15-150 cm and green shoots are often grazed down to a height of 2 cm. Roan antelope feed on grasses and other foliage in the morning and evening hours and retreat to more densely wooded areas during the middle of the day. They must drink regularly and inhabit areas where water is easily accessible.

In his book “Shaping Kruger” Mitch Reardon provided some valuable insights into the lives, habit and behaviour of a variety of animals in the Kruger National Park with chapter four dedicated to “The riddle of the disappearing Roan antelope”. In an effort to boost their numbers, the park’s conservation experts had instigated the Water for Game project in the mid-’70s, where 35 man-made waterholes were constructed, along with six dams. It was a disaster as far as the Roan were concerned. The water enticed large numbers of zebra, wildebeest and buffalo into the area and predators followed in their wake. Roan require long grass in which to hide their young, and with the grass cropped short, they were now easy pickings for lions, leopards, hyenas and even opportunistic jackals. It was the first of a run of ecological disasters to beset the park’s Roan population.

“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” ~ Socrates

These two young male Roan antelope showed that this species like the Sable, Tsessebe and wildebeest get onto the knees to fight. Roan antelope males commonly fight for dominance. When fighting, Roan bulls will drop to their knees and neck wrestle and jostle by locking horns and pushing each other. The fights are more about wrestling and are seldom fatal though Roan bulls are known to be highly aggressive.

I was very excited to see Roan antelope. I have never seen one in all the years I have been to Kruger National Park. The last time I saw a Roan antelope was in the Serengeti plain in Ruaha National Park in Tanzania. The lone Roan bull we saw in Ruaha was huge and very skittish. I was very surprised to see how small the Roan were in this breeding camp. They were clearly young and were smaller than the Sable bulls in the same camp.

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”
~ Stephen Hawking

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

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