Vet Returns To Chad For Antelope Conservation

Tye Chandler :
Posted March 16, 2020

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. 

Julie Swenson, DVM, Dipl. ACZM / Photo credit: Gavin Livingston

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.

Adam Eyres / Photo credit: Gavin Livingston

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

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.

Dr. Tim Wacher from the Zoological Society of London (top) uses radio telemetry to track previously released scimitar-horned oryx in the wild. / Photo credit: Julie Swenson

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.

Krazidi Abeye (right) with Justin Chuven / Photo credit: Adam Eyres
A group of wild scimitar-horned oryx are shown with the calves of 2019. This herd was able to be tracked despite the majority of animals no longer having GPS collars because several of the animals were released at later dates and still wear GPS collars. The collars are programmed to fall off after 1-2 years. / Photo credit: John Newby

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.

Addax in the wild. / Photo credit: Adam Eyres

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.

A false cobra (Malpolon moilensis) was found crossing the road. / Photo credit: Justin Chuven
Several species of bustards call this region home for at least a portion of each year; these large birds are commonly sighted on game drives. / Photo credit: Julie Swenson
Dorcas gazelles are the most commonly seen antelope species in the region and are often seen in herds of 10-15 animals. / Photo credit: John Newby
This Libyan striped weasel was found on a night drive. Also known as the Saharan striped polecat, this small carnivore only weighs about one pound. / Photo credit: Gavin Livingston

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.

Camel herds converge on a local watering hole. / Photo credit: Gavin Livingston
A young boy leads his camel to the well. He will then hitch the animal to a bucket that is lowered for water. The camel will pull the bucket back up and down again as needed until the water troughs are filled for the other animals to drink. / Photo credit: Gavin Livingston

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.

The sandy substrate makes getting a vehicle stuck a common occurrence in this part of the world. / Photo credit: Gavin Livingston
Luckily, most vehicles were able to be pushed out with assistance from the crew. / Photo credit: Julie Swenson

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.

Ric Pusey (middle) from the EAD prepares the drone for flight with the assistance of John Newby (SCF) and Adam Eyres (left) from Fossil Rim. / Photo credit: Justin Chuven

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.

This image from drone footage shows the initial release of the addax into the prerelease pen. / Photo credit: EAD/SCF
This image from drone footage shows the addax in the prerelease pen. / Photo credit: EAD/SCF

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 drone is visible at the top of the photo as it flies over the vulture nest below. / Photo credit: Julie Swenson
This image from drone footage was captured as it hovered over a Ruppell’s griffon vulture nest. / Photo credit: EAD/SCF

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 3 of this blog will be shared on social media in the coming days.

-Dr. Julie Swenson, Associate Veterinarian 

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