The Greater Kruger National Park is a hub of wildlife, however, population figures are not concrete and often natural reasons cause a specific species population to increase or decrease.
Sable is a large antelope that grazes in the mixed savannah woodlands of the Greater Kruger. Since the 1980s, the species has been in decline in the region and active efforts have been made to prohibit further decline of the species.
Due to the small sable population in the Punda Maria region, it was difficult to figure out the cause of the low numbers of the species so further steps had to be taken to closely monitor these free-roaming antelope.
The sable population in the Punda Maria region is now stable and safari-goers stand a good chance of spotting the previously scarce animal. The sable project was initiated in 2001 and ran until the end of 2008 and provided clearer answers on the mysterious population dynamics of the sable antelope.
A research project, led by Professor Norman Owen-Smith from Wits University, investigated the sable species, where they move to and what they like to eat. The project took place in both the Punda Maria and Pretoriuskop areas. The aim of the project was to look at how sable antelope compete with buffalo and zebra for food.
Animals from two zebra, two buffalo and two sable herds were collared in the beginning of 2006, enabling the researchers to follow each herd and see what they eat and which areas they are using. These collars have a battery life of about one year and new collars are now necessary to be able to continue the study for a second year.
Having collared animals in the herds already makes re-collaring much easier and cheaper as it is easier to find the herds. Since it is difficult to predict exactly when the batteries will fail, the new collars have been placed on different animals in the same herd before the batteries on the old collars go flat. The collaring operation for 2007 to fit GPS-cellphone collars was undertaken with a small team including the Sanparks helicopter pilot Charles Thompson and Sanparks veterinarian Dr Markus Hofmeyr. The two researchers working on the sable project, Liza Le Roux and Dr Valerio Macandza, also helped with the capture operation, which was done south of Punda Maria.
"It was a challenge to dart these animals from the air as they run fast, twisting and turning and making it difficult to dart them", explained Markus. The collars are designed to take GPS readings of where the animals are moving, then send the GPS readings through the cellphone network to a central computer. The researchers can download this information via the internet and create detailed maps of the areas these species are using. The project dealt with three similar species using the same habitat, to see if there is any competition for grazing or water resources.
By Michele Hofmeyr and Liza Le Roux