Back to Africa chose sable as a species for its first antelope project as it is a charismatic species which is regionally threatened in South Africa’s national parks. They are classified by the IUCN as a species of “least concern” (IUCN 2017). Sable are ranched extensively in South Africa as part of the hunting and ecotourism industry. Most are managed and cannot be classified as wild.
On the 5th February 2002, four Sable (three females, one male) arrived at Johannesburg International Airport, a donation from Blijdorp Zoo, Rotterdam, Netherlands to South African National Parks (SANParks). They were transported to SANParks special species breeding facility “Graspan”, near Kimberley, where they formed the nucleus of a breeding unit that was to be used to stock various parks in South Africa where numbers of this species had dwindled. Two further groups (# (M:F) and # (M:F), respectively) from Dvur Kralove in the Czech Republic (May 2002) and Marwell Zoological Park in the UK (June 2003) were imported bringing the total number imported to ten individuals. One of the imported females was sterile and never bred.
The objective was to see whether it was possible to breed from this bloodstock and eventually rewild the population. This population was reinforced with a small number of SANParks sable.
The Kimberley area is the choice area for ranching sable in South Africa. Cold winters result in low tick numbers resulting in low disease risk. There is some debate as to whether sable were indigenous to the area so it could be regarded as a “conservation introduction” and ”assisted colonization” (IUCN/SSC 2013). The animals were breeding well under managed circumstances.
Four male animals were released into the Mapungubwe National Park (on the Zimbabwe Botswana border) in June 2006. They were fitted with GPS collars and were monitored on a daily basis to study their adaptability back to the wild. We were interested in whether they would contract the tick-borne disease Theileriosis and to this end we had a trained researcher monitoring them on a daily basis.. Sadly, by November 2006 three had been predated by leopard. All three collars were safely recovered and data collected and collated.
In 2007 (at the time of the deproclamation of Vaalbos National Park) SANPark’s management deteriorated at Graspan. A decision was made to move the main group to the Mokala National Park close to Kimberley.
On the 17 October 2007 SANParks Game Capture Unit moved the 9 cows and 2 bulls to a breeding camp in Mokala. The position in April 2010 at Mokala National Park breeding camp was 23 animals comprising 10 adults with 7 calves born in 2009 and 6 in 2010! A fresh bull was reintroduced to the group in July 2009 to prevent inbreeding.
Back to Africa made a conscious decision not to intervene further with management as the rewilding process had begun. It was no longer justified to invest in further resources. This strategy was part of the translocation plan.
A serious drought occurred in 2016/17 and many animals died. Numbers fluctuated as follows:
2008- 10, 2009 – 15, 2010 – 23, 2011- 29, 2012-31, 2013- no survey, 2014 – no survey, 2015 – 30, 2016- 19, 2017 – 10, 2018 -15,
Sadly in 2019 it appears only 10 animals exit.
We have learned a great deal from this project.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
The animals thrived when kept under captive situations but battled when released into extensive conditions due to drought. Sable do not compete well with other grazers. Mineral deficiencies could have played a role.