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Getting wet with Kobus

This group of antelope typifies the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Here we have a group of Kobus. “Kobus” is the genus name of the waterbuck and it has a related cousin, the reedbuck. These two species love water, even to the point that they have ducks' feet.  They do not take to the water for a paddle on a daily basis, but they require this "foot wear" to survive in the wet, water-logged conditions that they prefer.  This area is South Africa's largest wetland and certain features like, for example, the Mafabeni swamp qualifies as the largest peat swamp in the Southern Hemisphere. This is clearly a good reason to find loads of hydrophilic antelope, although there are a number of other species too, like Puku, Red Lechwe and finally Mountain Reedbuck that are found elsewhere.  But our two species are well represented in this area.

Waterbuck.  

The easiest way to recognise this beauty is by the large circular marking on its rump.  One guest mentioned,"It is like an unfortunate birth mark".  There are a whole host of other humorous jokes relating to this characteristic waterbuck feature. Here, we have a remarkably large population of this antelope and they are great, especially in the sense that they are very co-operative when it comes to photography. They tend to stand and stare.  The fact that they are grazers is also good because they are normally found out in open areas of grassland, unlike kudu that characteristically disappear behind bushes and trees just at the critical moment when you are about to click the camera trigger. 

What aquatic features enable the waterbuck to be so well suited to wet conditions?  They have a few unexpected abilities that are often not mentioned. Firstly, they have specialized feet, almost duck feet, or slightly webbed feet for navigating marshlands. These webbed feet enable them to walk through the marshland without sinking too deeply into the mud. Their toes open out and a flap of skin between their toes traps a small balloon of mud. This prevents the animals from getting that "sinking feeling".   Marshy wet areas also have a lot of blood -sucking critters, so waterbucks have special sebaceous or oil glands. These glands are presumed to produce an insect -repelling substance, which is not only repugnant to insects but also to predators. Ask any lion! Even the early hunters and pioneers avoided wasting effort on hunting these water-loving antelope.  If you are thinking of keeping a waterbuck as a house pet, avoid it.  If the large size of this antelope does not put you off, remember that you will need plenty of Chanel No.5;  they smell terrible as a result of their oily secretions.  

Waterbucks have a rather interesting social life. Here, they are considered the only antelope with the ability to produce twins. This is thought to be a response to the wet and dry cycles we experience in this area. In dry years more single births are seen. During wet years when there are more flooded areas, twinning is more prevalent. The male society is rather interesting. Males have a great sense of social duty and throughout the year a single male is generally seen with a group or harem of females (not the case with the Traglephids). The bachelor male waterbuck group together - play golf, drink beer, flip through the TV channels and leave the toilet seat up - just kidding! These bachelor groups have two generally accepted functions: the first is that there is safety in numbers (not too sure why, as predators don't like to eat them); the second function is that they are always scrapping or rutting. These little fairly aggressive fights ensure that these animals learn fighting skills, until they reach a mature age, when they can challenge a dominant male for his harem. Sometimes they may not be successful and they become satellites or sneakers; when the dominant male is not looking, they will sneak into his harem and have their way with his females. This is nature's way of ensuring a little more genetic diversity.  This information is once again only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to waterbucks. Taking a tour into this Park should give you access to additional information on these and many other animals. 

Reedbuck - the indicator species

Many years ago this area, before it became the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, had little or no commercial value in terms of tourism potential. So a plan to tame or utilize this area was put into place. This involved planting 14 000 hectares of pine trees into the wetland! You may wonder what was public opinion regarding this measure? As we needed timber, it was regarded as acceptable; just as cattle farming destroyed thousands of hectares of rain forest, and just as surface strip mining irreversibly changes the soil composition, just as the war in Iraq was decided upon without an EIA (environmental impact assessment). Many years later however, there was a need and a mind change and we then started protesting against this wanton environmental abuse. Trees were then removed and we re-invented the wheel by bringing back the natural environment and we all got excited about the eco-tourism potential of this area!

Where does reedbuck feature in this explanation? In nature, there are animals that respond to man's often unintentional interference in nature. This was seen in the mid '50's in the Kruger Park. Wild dogs and hyenas were shot off as they were considered vermin. Natural fires were stopped and as a result of this, the impala population went through the roof. Changes in the management policies (least disturbance management) had generally reduced impala numbers and things were looking better, although the Kruger elephants were a bit of an issue - a case of time accumulated biomass. In this area here, the reedbuck played an interesting role… 

When the pine tree planting commenced, it was started in the grasslands.  After ten to fifteen years, the grasslands disappeared under vast swathes of exotic pine trees. The reedbuck were then displaced and moved to areas where there was grass. Since the tree planting was extensive, there was much grazing competition in the remaining grassy areas. In addition, the pines consumed vast quantities of water that dried out many of the small lakes and swamps, changing a traditional wetland into a dryland, making it more like savannah. The option used was to cull reedbuck numbers to ensure there was no over-grazing or trampling. Over an estimated period of thirty years, approximately 20 000 common reedbuck were culled and the population decreased from 14 500 to a paltry 2500 in the early 90's. It was then that eco-tourism raised its beautiful head. At this stage it was decided to stop the culling and initiate a rehabilitation programme to re-establish the original eco-system. Pine trees were being grown more successfully elsewhere and the price of pine wood was very low.  Over the following years, clear felled areas were not replanted and in September 2007, the last pine trees were removed from this Park. This formed the basis of rehabilitating the Wetland.

Where are all the reedbucks? The numbers have increased, but possibly not at the rate that was expected. This has been a difficult rehabilitation to measure.  Annual censuses are conducted and it has been found that the reedbuck population has not increased faster than the waterbuck population.  Waterbucks have a nine month pregnancy as opposed to reedbucks that require only six months.  Two factors could be attributed to this difference or anomaly. Waterbucks can produce twins, and reedbucks are eminently more edible than waterbuck.  There are also more predators that are able to catch and consume reedbucks as opposed to waterbucks.

When next visiting the Park, you are far more likely to see waterbucks, but look carefully and you will notice reedbucks lying close to the ground in all the little swampy areas. When they feel threatened, they lie on the ground. The reedbucks near St. Lucia Village are in small groups of two's and three's, and as you pass Catalina Bay there are bigger groups of up to eight. The area around the St. Lucia gate was only recently rehabilitated, whereas the area near Catalina Bay has never been afforested, so as a result reedbucks are found in larger groups. I invite you to check them out on your next visit to iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

Posted by Kian Barker

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