Vet Returns To Chad For Antelope Conservation
My name is Julie Swenson and I am the Associate Veterinarian at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center. In July of 2018, a group of people from Fossil Rim were given the opportunity to travel to the Republic of Chad to assist with placing GPS collars on a group of scimitar-horned oryx that were set to be released into the wild after having been considered extinct.
I was lucky enough to be a part of this group and had an amazing experience. So, when asked if I would be willing to come again in 2020, I jumped at the chance.
My travel partner for this trip was Adam Eyres, the Director of Animal Care at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center. Along the way, we met up with a phenomenal team of specialists from all across the world.
The purpose of this trip was conservation with three main focuses: releasing addax to the wild, checking in on the wild scimitar-horned oryx population, and capturing wild dama gazelles of distinct genetic lineage for release into the protected reserve at Ouadi Rimé – Ouadi Achim.
We saw many incredible things on this trip and participated in some astonishing projects. Now, we’ll take you along with us as we travel through this amazing countryside to see things few people ever get to see…
Part One: Addax
The first difficulty in getting to Chad, is getting to Chad. We left very early on the 11th of January to make the drive up from Glen Rose to the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. From DFW, we flew to Atlanta, then to Paris, then to N’Djamena – the Chadian capital city, arriving in the evening of the 12th.
All told, it took about 15 hours of flying, two hours of driving, and 11 hours of layovers to make the trip. But, along the way we picked up additional people including: Michael Maslanka (Senior Nutritionist and Head of the Department of Nutrition Science, Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute), Gavin Livingston (Corporate Animal Collection Manager for Gulf Breeze Zoo, Virginia Safari Park, and Alabama Safari Park), and John Newby (Senior Advisor for the Sahara Conservation Fund).
We were joined the following day in N’Djamena by Justin Chuven (Unit Head – Ex-Situ Terrestrial Conservation Programmes) and Ric Pusey (Team Lead – Animal Collections, Ex-Situ Terrestrial Conservation Programmes) from the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD). With this portion of the team complete, we left on the 14th to make the trek up to Oryx Base Camp. A short, two-hour flight and a five-hour drive found us at camp in time for dinner.
The rest of the team was already at base camp, including Dr. Tim Wacher (Zoological Society of London) and his team of trackers and animal care specialists, plus Marc Dethier (Project Manager, Oryx Reintroduction Project, Chad) and his staff, which included Firmin Dingamtebeye (Oryx Reintroduction Project, Chad).
The first project for this trip involved moving and then releasing 15 addax into the wild. Addax are a species of antelope native to the desert regions of North Africa. They are considered to be the most threatened ungulate in the Sahara, currently listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
Despite their rarity in the wild, they are a species that breeds well in captivity and can be found in many different zoological collections. Anyone who has visited Fossil Rim has probably encountered our addax while driving through, likely without realizing just how rare this species actually is in the wild.
These 15 animals in Chad set for release had arrived several months before from the collection of the EAD. They had already been fitted with GPS collars prior to arriving in Chad and had spent the last few months acclimatizing to the local conditions. The next step was to move them to the prerelease pen about an hour-and-a-half away. This required a great deal of teamwork.
The addax were being held in a large pen and had to be corralled by several people into a smaller area for sorting. Once in the smaller area, one animal at a time could be separated out and encouraged into a load-out chute with a series of sliding doors. This allows the animal to be moved progressively forward with minimal stress.
Two of the younger males had run into an issue with their GPS collars while acclimating, so they had to be manually restrained and recollared prior to being crated, but the rest of the animals were moved through the load-out chute without pause. At the end of the load-out chute was a transport crate. Once the animal was secured in the transport crate (one animal per crate), the crate was lifted by a crane and placed on a truck for transport.
This whole process was repeated for each of the 15 animals. When all 15 were loaded into the trucks, they were driven out to the prerelease pen.
Upon arrival at the prerelease pens, the crates were taken off the trucks by the crane and lined up – half at a time – in front of the pen. Then, the doors were opened and out rushed the addax! All 15 looked great! They stayed in this temporary pen for two days before the final release into the wild.
The night before the full release, we drove back out to the prerelease pen and camped out to be prepared for the early-morning activities. At 7:30 the next morning, the gates were opened and the 15 previously captive addax ran out into the wild for the first time.
They kept running towards the horizon and didn’t stop until they were out of sight. Thanks to the GPS collars that each animal wears, Dr. Tim Wacher and his staff will be able to track these animals as they move across the landscape, adjusting to their new home.
Part Two: Tracking Antelope
Since 2016, the Scimitar-Horned Oryx Reintroduction Project has been releasing captive-raised scimitar-horned oryx back into the wild in the Ouadi Rimé-Ouadi Achim (OROA) Game Reserve. Prior to the start of this project, this species was extinct in the wild.
One of the most-rewarding projects of our trip was to revisit some of these animals and see how they were faring in the wild since being released. Tracking these scimitars is made substantially easier by the presence of GPS collars that are placed prior to release. These collars send a signal twice a day that indicates the exact location of that animal.
Once that signal is reported, a tracking team can go directly to the location. Given that it may take the tracking team several hours to reach the last reported point, the scimitars are rarely visible when the GPS point is found. They have continued to move on. However, the tracking team can then utilize radio telemetry to follow the scimitars as they move.
Utilizing this method, we were able to locate several groups of scimitars. The animals appear to be doing very well in the wild! There are reports of second-generation, wild-born offspring, which is an indication of a very healthy herd.
In fact, the staff from the OROA Game Reserve, under the direction of the primary tracker, Krazidi Abeye, have been managing to find these calves as neonates and capture and restrain them long enough to sex ID the animals and place ear tags for later identification. This means the staff can trace lineages over time to determine which dams produce the most offspring or which animals have difficulties raising calves.
In addition to tracking previously released scimitar-horned oryx, we were also able to track the addax that we released into the wild during the first part of our trip. After being released, the 15 animals broke apart into several smaller groups and traveled various distances – up to 31 miles in one instance! We were lucky enough to locate the largest group of animals (11 total) and see for ourselves how they were adjusting to life in the wild.
While looking for collared addax and scimitars, we also got the chance to see lots of other wildlife. During day drives, we came across false cobras and fennec foxes running across the road. Birds of prey, including snake eagles, pallid harrier hawks, and even a secretary bird, were spotted.
Large groups of Ruppell’s griffon vultures and lappet-faced vultures were seen at carcass sites and several nests were found in trees, as well. Bustards abounded, as did dorcas gazelles, jackals, and pale foxes. Night drives found Libyan striped weasels, a lesser-spotted genet, jerboas, and many species of small rodents.
Local domestic watering holes and wells were also a regular finding on game drives. Livestock are very important in Chad. Camels, goats, sheep, donkeys, and the occasional herd of cattle are quite common.
Where livestock congregate, humans often dig wells. These wells can seriously alter the normal desert ecosystem, encouraging large amounts of grazing in an otherwise inhospitable portion of the desert. This increased grazing by domestic animal herds contributes to the further desertification of the region, pushing native wildlife farther and farther away in search of grazing opportunities and water.
Not all of the drives to find animals were as successful. The areas that are being searched are quite remote and can lead to any number of issues. The roads that do exist in this region are mostly dirt tracks.
The animals rarely follow the roads, so while tracking, a large amount of the time is spent off-road using the GPS coordinates as the primary means of direction. Flat tires are common, as is getting stuck. On one of our drives, various vehicles got stuck a total of nine times.
Another project that we were able to participate in was to look into the feasibility of utilizing aerial drones for various functions. Due to the small size of many of the commercially available options, drones are increasingly being used to monitor wildlife. Most wildlife will tolerate drones within a significantly shorter distance than they would tolerate a human being.
Given the excellent footage – both still and video – that can be captured with these instruments, not to mention being able to observe an animal on a live feed, the potential uses for drones in wildlife monitoring is constantly increasing.
During the addax release, we utilized a small drone to capture footage of the entire translocation process. Footage was obtained of crating the animals, releasing the animals into the temporary prerelease pen, and eventually releasing the animals into the wild. But, the most useful part was being able to remotely view the animals while in the prerelease pen to check for evidence of injuries and to assess how stressed the animals were following transport without having the added stressor of humans watching them from the fence line.
Reviewing the video showed a group of animals that calmed down very quickly once released from the crates and began exhibiting normal herd behaviors within a very short period of time. The animals did not seem particularly concerned about the presence of the drone and were much more likely to stare at any people that were moving around beyond the fence line rather than watch the drone itself.
Africa is currently in the midst of a severe vulture crisis. With several species in danger of extinction due to recent precipitous population declines, it is more important than ever to be able to track animals and monitor nesting sites.
In the Sahel region of Chad, vultures often nest in the tops of trees on the open grassland. Without climbing into these trees, which would then scare off the nesting pair, it can be very difficult to assess the success of any nest. Drones, however, can fly above the nest and visualize the adults, as well as any eggs or chicks that are present, without causing undue discomfort to the animals.
We were able to fly a small drone above a nesting pair of Ruppell’s griffon vultures quite easily and get excellent footage of both parents as they sat on the nest. No eggs were present (it’s not currently breeding season), but the level of detail that could be discerned with this method showed just how useful drone monitoring will be for vulture nests in the future.
The next stage of our trip would be the most difficult, but also the most rewarding. Although all of the locations we had visited so far were remote and with minimal infrastructure, our next project would bring us even further afield.
Dama gazelles exist in two distinct populations in Chad: one larger population distributed around OROA, the other a remnant population found in the Manga region in western Chad. This second population would be our next goal, but finding them within the vastness of the Manga would prove to be a challenge.
Part Three: Dama Rescue
The final part of our trip was the most complicated. The Manga is a region of Chad near the northwestern border and is home to one of the last remaining populations of dama gazelles in the wild. This population is of particular importance to the conservation of the species due to its unique genetic diversity.
Unfortunately, the population has become fragmented with the remaining animals being so few and covering such a large area of land that breeding is becoming increasingly rare, as these antelopes have difficulty finding one another across the huge expanses.
A separate population of dama gazelles exists already at OROA in the center of Chad. Although this population is also small, it is not nearly as fragmented as the Manga population. However, the genetics seen in this OROA population are not nearly as diverse as the genetics found in the Manga.
Because of this, the decision was made to try to capture some of the remaining animals in the Manga and transport them to OROA, where they would be able to add their genetic diversity to the herd that currently calls OROA home. The importance of this project for the survival of this species can’t be understated.
Dama gazelles number less than one hundred individuals in the wild, split between four distinct populations in Chad and Niger. With so few individuals remaining in the Manga and so few still existing in the wild, each individual animal is of great importance.
Transporting these fragile gazelles the 250 miles to their new home required an immense amount of preplanning. A capture of this magnitude with this species had never been attempted before, so planning had to start from scratch.
Prior to going to Chad, a team was assembled to assess the options and come up with the best way to transport these animals. Dr. Pete Morkel, a renowned wildlife capture veterinarian from Africa, led this team. He received input from several veterinarians, including myself and Dr. Holly Haefele (Fossil Rim Wildlife Center), Dr. Pat O’Neil (Pedernales Veterinary Center), Dr. Scott Citino (White Oak Conservation), and Dr. Charlotte Moueix (C Vet Wildlife Veterinary Services).
Our team determined what we believed to be the best anesthetic protocol and sedation options for these animals given the conditions that captures would likely occur under. A related husbandry team consisting of many of the team members that would eventually join us in Chad (John Newby, Adam Eyres, Gavin Livingston, Ric Pusey, and Justin Chuven) determined the best methods for housing these animals while they were awaiting transport from the Manga to OROA.
In addition to planning the husbandry and the veterinary care, the general logistics of such a large undertaking had to be worked out. These logistics were extremely complex and could not have been done without the significant efforts of a few key people. Most specifically, John Newby, Marc Dethier, and Mahamat Hassan Hacha (OROA Game Reserve Conservator) all worked tirelessly to organize the permissions and permits, the delivery of a helicopter to Chad that could be used for darting animals, and the use of a small fixed-wing airplane that could be utilized for animal transportation and aerial surveys.
Once planning had been completed, it was time to actually catch damas. The team left Oryx Base Camp and drove the 250 miles from OROA to the town of Salal, which sits at the edge of the Manga region. A small airstrip outside of Salal was determined to be the best location for our camp, since it would allow us to be close to the helicopter and the fixed-wing plane during captures.
Despite the good location in relation to the aircraft, this site left much to be desired in regards to a campground. There was no infrastructure present and the wind was constant with no barriers to stop it. As an unplanned team-building experience, we erected a windbreak to minimize the wind blowing directly through camp, but otherwise it was very exposed to the elements.
At camp, we were joined by Hoho Andrew from Tropic Air as our helicopter pilot, Dr. Charlotte Moueix as our capture vet, and a crew of outfitters from the Société de Voyages Sahariens (SVS) under the direction of Andrea Bonomo. SVS would provide all of our meals during our stay in Salal, which was extremely helpful given the lack of infrastructure present.
Charlotte has years of experience helicopter darting antelope from her work in South Africa and had agreed to be our darter for the dama captures when it was determined that Dr. Morkel would be unable to meet us for the actual capture.
The fixed-wing aircraft was unfortunately delayed by several days, so our initial surveys were done via helicopter rather than plane. Searching for dama gazelles via helicopter is a bit like looking for a couple of needles in thousands of hayfields. Based on the most recent aerial surveys, which were done a few months before, it was suspected that there were at most 10-20 animals present over an area that spanned more than approximately six million acres.
The landscape in this area is gently rolling sand dunes, which allowed for decent visualization at a distance, assuming there wasn’t a sandstorm going on. Which there was. Almost every day.
Luckily, we also had the help of several ground crews. The NGO Noé Conservation, along with a team from Chad’s Wildlife Service, quickly started searching on the ground for evidence of dama gazelles. This was done by looking for actual tracks of the animals, as well as by contacting local informants who had been encouraged to look out for dama gazelles in their area over the past several months.
The search was also significantly aided by the survey mapping done by Dr. Tim Wacher in preparation for this trip. This survey mapping allowed us to focus on several hotspots in the area where damas had been previously reported to be seen. However, after two days of searching, both by helicopter and on foot, no damas were seen.
Despite this, the crew still felt positive that the animals were there, even if we hadn’t yet seen them. With the addition of the fixed-wing plane, which had been confirmed to arrive the following morning from the Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) and be flown by pilot Phil Henderson, our odds of finding gazelles would likely be increased, as the plane would be able to cover much larger distances in search of dama gazelles.
Finally, on January 24th, fresh dama tracks were found by the ground crew! Tracks of at least four animals were noted along with fresh urine, indicating that these tracks were placed within the previous few hours. As the ground crew continued to follow the tracks, the helicopter with the capture team (myself, Charlotte, and Justin, along with Hoho the pilot) rushed out to the location.
After some significant tracking, all four animals (all females) were seen from the helicopter. Within 30 minutes of being found, three of the four animals were darted by Charlotte and showed evidence of the effects of anesthesia. The capture team found the three anesthetized animals and loaded them into the helicopter for transport back to the camp at Salal.
Once back at the Salal camp, the dama gazelles were given reversal agents to counteract the effects of the anesthetic drugs that had been delivered in the darts. They were also administered several tranquilizers to help maintain a calm disposition over the next few days while transitioning into captivity.
Physical exams were performed and the animals appeared to be in excellent shape overall. Ear tags were placed to allow for individual identification, and then the three animals were loaded into specialized dama gazelle crates for holding until they could be transported to OROA via helicopter or plane.
Normally, hoofstock like these gazelles would be transported while still within their crates. This allows them to be transported fully awake, as they are unlikely to hurt themselves in these specialized crates and tend to stay calm in the quiet, dark environment the crate offers.
However, due to the size of the aircrafts that were available in the country of Chad, our three dama gazelles had to be flown without their crates (the crates simply would not fit in the small fixed-wing plane or the helicopter). Because of this, a sedation protocol had been developed, as mentioned earlier, that was intended to allow us to safely transport these animals with two of them in the floor of the helicopter and one in the floor of the plane without the use of the crates.
On the morning of the transport, the dama gazelles were removed from their crates and given a temporary intravenous catheter that could be used to titrate any sedation that was needed while in transport. The animals were hobbled, blindfolded, and ear plugs were inserted to minimize stimuli. Then, they were loaded into the helicopter and fixed-wing plane, each aircraft with its own veterinarian and animal husbandry specialist, and flown two hours to the holding pens in OROA.
Once the dama females had landed and were secured in their holding pen, it was determined that the best chance for their reproductive success would be to introduce them to a male from the herd that was already present in OROA. With this in mind, two ground teams were dispatched to locate the OROA animals.
Once a group of damas was sighted, the capture team (myself, Charlotte, Adam, and Hoho) set off in the helicopter to dart a male. Within 20 minutes, we had our male. He was introduced to the herd and all four animals appear to be settling in well!
The three girls were affectionately named after three of the women involved in this project: “Charlotte,” “Becki” (who helped organize the MAF plane), and “Julie.” The male was appropriately named “Moussa” after John Newby’s nickname and in honor of all the amazing assistance John contributed to this project.
As a conservation project, this trip was a resounding success. Much of this is related to luck and good timing, but the amount of time and effort that went into planning for these projects was the key to our progress made.
The assistance of all the various people and institutions who were involved in the many different moving parts was essential to these accomplishments. This article only focuses on a small number of the people who were ultimately involved in this project, and our thanks and sincere appreciation goes out to all of those who were concerned enough about the dama gazelle’s survival to participate.
-Dr. Julie Swenson, Associate Veterinarian