Shrinking savanna grasslands threatens life for the Oribi gazelle

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Home to southern Africa’s grasslands, the swift, small and lightweight Oribi antelope is southern Africa’s most endangered antelope species.  The Oribi can be seen in South Africa’s provinces of KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape.  Habitat loss and illegal hunting has steadily taken its toll on the Oribi population and today, only a few thousand of these small, delicate antelopes with its huge black eyes remain.

The Oribi is a picky grazer, seeking high quality short grasses in southern Africa’s savanna grassland environments.  Taller grasses are their shelter places.  Amongst the tall savanna grasslands, the Oribi rears its young and hide from predators.  But life for the Oribi is all but peaceful.  Southern Africa’s grasslands are exposed to development, mining, agriculture, commercial forestry and desertification, all causing rapid habitat transformation and destruction.  So much so that Africa’s grassland destruction is compared to the shrinking rainforests of the Amazon.  With only 2.2% of South Africa’s grasslands formally conserved and at least 60% of the Oribi’s natural habitat already transformed, this swift-footed antelope is finding itself trapped in a rapidly shrinking habitat.  And with human boundaries preventing the Oribi from roaming freely and migrating to undisturbed grasslands, the Oribi is in desperate need of protection.

Another serious concern is the impact of illegal dog hunting.  The small Oribi antelope is the perfect prey for dogs trained or born to hunt, and many traditional communities still practice dog hunting for sport and leisure.  Although South Africa has strict laws in place supposed to control dog hunting, law enforcement in rural corners of South Africa remains a challenge and illegal hunting persists.  Illegal hunting is so extreme that conservationists fear that it could drive the Oribi to extinction.

On a positive note, the Oribi Working Group recently reported some promising news.  This conservation organization successfully relocated two Oribi pairs to Gelijkwater Mistbelt Nature Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal.  Owned by the paper company Mondi, this newly proclaimed nature reserve offers a safe haven for species under threat like the Oribi.  The Oribi once roamed freely in the area and for this reason it is even greater news that four antelope has returned to their former home.  The Oribi forms small families with close ties.  With the female Oribi giving birth to a single lamb per season, the antelope’s population is not expected to reach high numbers within a short period of time.  The female is vehemently protective of her young and is known for hiding the young lamb in a safe spot for at least a month after birth.  The hopes are that Mondi will continue to support the Oribi protection and that more pairs will be relocated to the reserve. 

The importance of Oribi conservation extends beyond the antelope’s threatened status.  Conservation efforts often rely on flagship species, or sometimes called Cinderella species.  The Oribi serves grasslands in the same way as the Bald Eagle served the US forests – behind the eagle stands the forests.  As flagship species, the Oribi can attract attention to the biodiversity importance of southern Africa’s grasslands.  With southern Africa’s fast disappearing grasslands, conservation efforts need to focus on the Oribi for public support.  Most South Africans know these pronging and squeaking gazelles with its brown coat and white belly, camouflaged perfectly against the African savanna grassland – and conservation organizations are depending on public support for the Oribi and its habitat.

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