Less than 1 000 wildebeest left in Central Kalahari... but there is hope

2016-09-23 20:43
Wildebeest migration (File)

Wildebeest migration (File)

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Gaborone - There could be fewer than 1 000 wildebeests left in Botswana's vast and forbidding Central Kalahari, says a leading researcher.

But there is a way of saving these "spare-parts" mammals: artificial water sources.

Moses Selebatso, who has been researching wildebeest populations in this exceptionally dry region for the last five years, says this little-studied mammal is the "most water-dependent species" within the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, the world's second largest wildlife reserve.

Selebatso believes that wildebeest numbers in the reserve are down by about 20% since 2011, despite the much-heralded release of 400 wildebeest from a farm into the reserve in May last year. 

Although the most recent government aerial survey puts the total number of wildebeest at about 1 500, Selebatso says the actual figure is likely "way below a thousand individuals."

Wildebeest are a type of antelope. They are best-known among non-scientists for their lack of cuddly parts. The joke is that they're made of spare parts from other animals: a large head, a shaggy mane and a pointed beard among others. 

Fair degree of success 

Providing water in the form of artificial waterholes may be one way of addressing population declines, ensuring that tourists and locals still get to see wildebeest on the sands of the Central Kalahari and conserving biodiversity for years to come. 

Typically wildebeest migrate vast distances to find water: just think of the great Serengeti wildebeest migrations in East Africa. 

Selebatso told News24 this week that cordon fences erected to stop the spread of diseases in livestock have cut off traditional routes that the Central Kalahari's wildebeest previously used to access outlying natural water sources.

These included lakes north and east of the reserve. The wildebeest even travelled as far as the Boteti River system, at least 165 km away.

The authorities have tried to mitigate this problem by providing watering holes. That strategy has had a fair degree of success, according to Selebatso. 

But the wildebeest become dependent on these artificial water sources and lose the ability to adapt to need water only when conditions are very dry, he warns. That means it's essential that water pumps don't break down or boreholes dry up. "[The wildebeest] become even more vulnerable when these waterholes dry up due to mechanical problems," he says.

Most critical aspect 

The reserve's wildebeest have hit the news headlines at least twice during the period of Selebatso's study. The first time was in 2012, when around 150 wildebeest were reported to have died after a water pan dried up. 

The second time was in May last year, when 400 wildebeest were released in an ambitious bid to shore up the reserve's population.

It's not clear if this has worked, says Selebatso. The wildebeest were not tracked and were not part of his study. He suggests that since few have been seen around the main waterholes and tourist routes the recently-introduced wildebeest could be "potentially outside the reserve". Or, he concedes, they could have died since they were particularly vulnerable to predators like lions having come from a farm.

Says Selebatso: "Water is the most critical aspect for the survival of the population in the reserve. If water can be provided adequately and consistently the population will survive."

Read more on:    botswana  |  southern africa  |  conservation  |  animals

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