The flight of the Oribi

2009-12-09 00:00

NUMBERS of Oribi antelope in KwaZulu-Natal are down on private land according to the latest figures presented at the annual Oribi meeting that took place at Michaelhouse, Balgowan, last week.

According to the latest figures, there are 1 042 animals on private land. When this number is added to those on protected game reserves, the total number of Oribi (see box) is probably just over 2 000.

“Of those on private land, over 50% of the properties taking part in the survey had five animals or fewer,” said Andre Rossouw, co-ordinator of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Threatened Grassland Species Programme (TGSP). “Ten percent of properties had 10 or more.”

The largest returns were from the Greytown area — 10% of the animals — and Vryheid 24% of the animals. Rossouw said the overall numbers and their locations painted a picture of isolated pockets of animals caught between forestry and development.

Currently an Oribi count is done in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga. Reporting on numbers in Mpumalanga, TGSP field worker Leigh Potter said there are 488 Oribi on private land in the province. Eighty-three percent of the properties involved in the count have 10 or fewer animals. She painted a similar picture to that of KwaZulu- Natal with small numbers of animals in isolated populations.

The main threat to Oribi in Mpumalanga are natural predators such as jackal, baboon and Black eagles, followed by stray dogs and a growing threat of organised dog hunting. “An emerging factor for us is mining,” she said. This is probably thanks to the fact there is an estimated 200 years’ worth of coal under the ground in Mpumalanga.

The TGSP started up this year and the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Blue Swallow (BSWG) and Oribi Working Groups (OWG) as well as the KZN Biodiversity Programme now fall within its remit (see box).

Work on the Oribi has included genetic studies, as well as research into disease and stress levels. TGSP has also been involved in the relocation and redistribution of animals.

Oribi are considered an indicator species, so their status is witness to the degradation or otherwise of a particular environment. Oribi live in grasslands. “The majority of people in South Africa live in a grassland biome,” says Rossouw. “Grassland is used to provide fodder for millions of cattle and is important as a source of water.”

The first count of Oribi on private land was done in 1981. “It was a small survey,” says Rossouw, “but it was clear that the Oribi was endangered, and had even become extinct on some farms.”

A follow-up survey of the same farms was done in 1998. “The statistics were even more alarming,” says Rossouw. “Close to 90% of the properties involved had only 10 animals or fewer.”

From 2001 there has been a biennial survey and it has been indicative of a declining numbers. In 2007, there were 1 300 Oribi on private land and 600 in protected areas. The latest figures indicate that the decline continues.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the biggest threat to Oribi is organised dog hunting, says Rossouw, following by snaring, predation by stray dogs and lastly, natural predators. “Increasing human population, consequent development and the cultivation of land to provide food for that growing population — all these factors are putting enormous pressure on Oribi and their habitats.”

How accurate are the figures? Rossouw acknowledges that some land owners are reluctant to fill in the count questionnaire. “They might be afraid it will affect a development application or they just have a dislike of environmental authorities. But there are areas from where survey forms were not sent in where we know there are Oribi, so the numbers are higher. Combined with those in reserves there is an estimated 2 000 plus.”

THE Oribi is a small antelope similar in size and appearance to a Steenbok. The males of both species have horns, while the females are hornless. The obvious black tail of the Oribi distinguishes it from the Steenbok, which prefers drier scrubby habitat.

The two species overlap in some areas in KZN, eg Estcourt and Ladysmith.

Oribi occur in pairs or in small family groups in grassland habitat. A territorial species, they defend their territories against other Oribi, also chasing the male calves out when these calves reach one year of age. Habitat quality, habitat management and protection from poaching determine Oribi densities, which can range from one Oribi per 30 hectares to one per eight hectares.

Oribi favour moist rolling grasslands. They have a year-round need for short grass for food, and long grass for shelter from the weather and predators (including shelter for the calves which are left to lie out for the first eight to 10 weeks.”

Surveys since 1981 in KZN have shown Oribi to be rapidly declining and several regional populations have become extinct.

Sixteen Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife protected areas have Oribi, with a total of only 600 animals. Chelmsford Nature Reserve has 150 Oribi, arguably one of the most important Oribi areas in South Africa.

However, most Oribi occur on private land, thus the very important role of landowners in ensuring the future of Oribi.

One of South Africa’s most threatened antelopes, the Oribi is rated as endangered in the South African Red Data Book. If their numbers continue to decrease they will certainly become critically endangered.

— Information from the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Threatened Grassland Species Programme.



GRASSLANDS in all their variations are currently one of South Africa’s most threatened biomes, with only 2,5% formally conserved and more than 40% already irreversibly transformed. The primary threats to grassland habitat include degradation and conversion mainly as a result of large-scale agricultural development, urbanisation, prospecting and mining.

The benefits of conserving grasslands include the provision of good-quality water in large quantities, flood attenuation, carbon sequestration, thatch grass for the building industry, grasses and sedges used to produce and sell a wide range of arts and crafts, areas of scenic beauty and areas that contain many unique animals, plants and birds upon which the ecotourism industry is built. The ecotourism industry provides direct employment to one in 20 South Africans and if implemented appropriately contributes significantly to the protection of various threatened ecosystems.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust’s (EWT) Blue Swallow (BSWG) and Oribi Working Groups (OWG) implement conservation action for grasslands but are based on a single-species approach. Conservation globally has moved away from the single-species approach in favour of an ecosystems-based approach. In order for the EWT to achieve an ecosystems approach to grassland conservation, the intention is to implement conservation action for priority areas within the grasslands and for suites of priority species inhabiting them.

This year the current single-species working groups of the EWT namely the BSWG and OWG as well as the KZN Biodiversity Programme, will become projects of an EWT Threatened Grassland Species Programme (EWT-TGSP). The Threatened Grassland Species Programme (TGSP) proposes to take a more proactive approach to grassland conservation, by basing its projects on a sound spatial analysis of the grassland biome overlaid with a spatial analysis of threatened fauna species, allowing an initial prioritisation of levels of threat to each area.

— ex

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