The award-winning wine estate, Vergelegen, may seem an unlikely location for groundbreaking research on bontebok, once considered to be the rarest antelope in the world.
Review by Jo Kromberg
Pioneering social studies on these animals at Vergelegen in Somerset West and two nearby nature reserves, however, could lead to greatly improved management of these endangered animals. Dr Anja Wasilewski of Marburg University in Germany is monitoring 20 antelope (Damaliscus pygargus pygargus) at Vergelegen, nine antelope at the Tygerberg nature reserve and ten at the Helderberg nature reserve.
She studies the three herds of bontebok in weekly shifts and walks 10-25 km daily, carrying six kilograms of equipment. Each animal is recognised according to the markings on its purplish-red body, white blaze on its face and well-developed horns in both male and female adults.
The five year programme, with field research undertaken every year since 2007, should ultimately lead to far greater understanding of the antelopes' complex social systems. This could, in turn, enable game wardens and others to further enhance the herds' welfare.
Wasilewski explains that she did the equivalent of a masters degree at Germany's University of Marburg on the behaviour of dairy sheep in England. She followed this up with doctoral research on horses and donkeys in a sanctuary in Norfolk, and sheep and cattle in East Sussex.
She had to get to know every animal individually, including the 63 donkeys, and studied factors like social hierarchies, the order in which they entered milking parlours and how they competed for feeding access. Finally she proved that domestic animals have an equivalent of human friendships. Some animals, like horses, have the same companions for different activities, but other animals, like donkeys, choose different companions for different activities.
Wasilewski then decided to find out whether such social bonds might be a result of domestication, so for her post-doctorate decided to research their wild ancestors and relatives.
"As alcelaphines like hartebeest, tsessebe, bontebok and blesbok have a complex social system, this entire group was predisposed for the kind of questions I was going to address."
Wasilewski was due to start a teaching assignment in the Namib desert in 2004, and decided to first holiday in Stellenbosch with friends who worked at the university. One of their colleagues was taking students to the Bontebok National Park and invited her along.
"I had my first bontebok encounter and realised they were the correct sub-species for me to research."
She initially worked at Tygerberg and Helderberg nature reserves, as bontebok are only found in protected areas of South Africa and prefer living on short grass plains in fynbos areas. She also incorporated Vergelegen when part of the study herd was transferred to the historic wine farm.
Bontebok had been relocated to the estate after its conservationist Gerald Wright, who's on the advisory board of the Helderberg nature reserve, noted with City of Cape Town vet Dr Elzette Jordan that the reserve was growing overpopulated with bontebok. There was insufficient grazing to support all the animals and some mineral deficiencies, especially zinc and possibly copper, were becoming apparent.
With the buy-in of Vergelegen MD Don Tooth, ten animals were captured and transferred to the wine estate about three years ago. There was an understanding that ten antelope would always belong to the City.
The buck were treated for ecto-parasites and given copper and zinc supplements, and have since thrived on indigenous and pasture vegetation. There are now 20 bontebok in several large camps. There has been only one loss, a yearling, which had an enlarged heart.
Wasilewski did a pilot bontebok study in 2006 to confirm that she could apply the same behavioural methods as with domestic animals. Since 2007 she has been conducting field research with students, who have themselves produced two masters degrees, with another masters and a doctorate underway.
"I have to decline requests because everyone wants to come to Africa for their fieldwork," she says. Wasilewski has personally compiled 1600 hours of data, with another 1600 hours from her students. She works from 7:00 in the morning till dark on weekdays, then does paperwork in the evening. "This is not a nine to five job."
She mainly researches social bonds, relationships, scent communication and use of space. She recognises the animals from every possible perspective, as they move constantly, and has taken meticulous ID photographs showing each animal's characteristics such as horn shape and size, blaze type and scars. There are also data recording sheets - every four minutes she scans the herd and notes the focal animal's activity and estimated distance from its neighbours. She then does the same for its three neighbours.
She knows intimately all youngsters born since 2005, and notes who their mothers and younger siblings are, although "fathers are a bit tricky" due to changes in territory owner during rutting time.
The research includes aerial photographs of the fields with notes on where the groups are, what they are doing, and when. She uses GPS (Geographic Information Positioning Systems) to record home ranges and notes factors such as the build-up of dung heaps.
Wasilewski also works with Professor Ben Burger of Stellenbosch University who does chemical analyses of the components and compositions of the bonteboks' scent secretions. She also hopes to do genetic analysis using micro-satellites to identify the fathers and is keen to equip some of the bontebok with radio telemetry or even GPS collars that would allow fully automatic location recording throughout the year.
Wasilewski is also in touch with the University of Bristol's Penguin Recognition Project on Robben Island. Penguins are marked with tags on their flippers, but this can be a problem as the metal could rub away some feathers and possibly cause infection. Researchers prefer alternatives and use spot patterns on penguins' chests, as these markings remain stable all their lives.
With bontebok, the horn shape and size are the biometrical equivalent, and 3D horn data is needed. Wasilewski thus collects skulls of bontebok that have died from natural causes. Electronics group Siemens in Munich has manufactured a 3D face scanner and has agreed to scan these skulls for her.
"We hope, at the end of the day, to be able to take a photo of a bontebok, then a programme will register if it has been photographed before, and if not, it will create a new file. So you could identify individuals, even if they are in a big herd, and could even keep track of them during multiple translocations. You could check if they are original stock or not.
"When animals are moved, it affects the social aspects of both the animals that move and those that remain. You want to know how to enhance the socio-positive (friendly) components and better manage their social needs."
The Vergelegen visitors and staff have meanwhile grown extremely fond of one of the small breeding pairs of bontebok that live in the large camp in front of the office. These antelope have been joined by two Nguni cattle (the estate boasts 120 prime specimens of this hardy indigenous breed) that were hand-reared then released. The cattle now believe they are also bontebok and follow them around, to the delight of visitors and staff.
This unlikely pairing of cattle and bontebok gained another twist when a large Angus bull that was en route to the abattoir escaped, clearing a fence and vehicle en route to join the main bontebok camp. He was given a reprieve by MD Don Tooth who believed that this spirited display should earn his freedom, and has been left to graze in peace in this camp. He too can be found amidst the bontebok raising a whole new field of research into social interaction.