Czechs in last ditch race to save endangered African antelope

Western Derby eland, photo: Karolína Brandlová

For nearly 20 years, Czechs have been involved in saving the critically endangered Western Derby eland, the world’s largest antelope living in Africa. The last wild population of this critically endangered species can today be found only in the West African country of Senegal and their fate depends solely on Czech-Senegalese cooperation.

Western Derby eland,  photo: Karolína Brandlová
I spoke to Karolína Brandlová, head of Derbianus Conservation, an NGO responsible for the conservation projects in Senegal, and first asked her to tell me more about the Western Derby eland:

“The Derby eland is one of the largest antelope species in the world. It became critically endangered in recent decades, when increasing human pressure, including poaching, agriculture and cattle grazing, have driven it to the brink of extinction.”

So how many specimens live in the wild at the moment?

“We focus on the Western Derby eland, the western subspecies, which is now restricted only to Senegal. In this western African country, there is the Niokolo Koba National Park, holding the last Western Derby Eland population.

“We used to think for a long time that there are about 170 individuals in the park based on the animal census from 2006. According to the new census from February 2018, no Derby Eland has yet been spotted in the park.

“We have some pictures of a relatively large herd from camera traps but in fact we are not sure how many individuals there are still in the park.”

How difficult is it to actually spot these antelopes. How large is the territory of the park?

“Niokolo Koba National Park has an area of about 9,000 square kilometres, so it is really huge. We have been working there for years and we have never actually spotted the Derby elands in the wild, because they are extremely shy and difficult to see.”

And how many are actually kept in captivity?

It became critically endangered due increasing human pressure, such as poaching, agriculture and cattle grazing.

“We launched the captive program in the year 2000 with one male and five females, who have been transported from the Niokolo Koba National Park to the fenced Bandia reserve near Dakar, by the seaside. At the moment, this population has increased to 111 individuals.”

Is there any threat to the species living in the reserve?

“The animals living in the fenced reserves are not threatened by poachers. The problem in the reserve is the fact that we have very limited founder basis. Since we started the breeding with just one male and five females, they are extremely endangered by potential genetic problems such as inbreeding.

“The wild population still suffers from poaching and other human activities, so we would like to help both of those populations.”

How many animals do you actually need to declare the species safe from extinction?

“To say that we have succeeded, we would like to have a large population of Western Derby eland freely roaming in the Niokolo Koba without further threats.

“It means that the population should be large enough to enable local hunters to take some of the animals out of the herd and benefit from it. In my opinion it is about 500 at the least. But of course we aim for even more.”

Czechs have been involved in saving the Western Derby Eland for nearly 20 years. How have they actually become involved in saving a species living far away in Africa?

Western Derby eland,  photo: archive of Derbianus Conservation
“All the projects started at the Faculty of Tropical AgriSciences at the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague. At that time, it was the Institute of Tropics and Subtropics, so we have always been focused on tropical countries, searching for different projects.

“Back then, it was actually the government of Senegal, in connection with the former Czech Embassy in Senegal, which approached us to start the project.”

And how have you yourself become involved in the Derbianus Conservation project?

“I joined the project during my post-graduate studies when I worked in the same field as the Eland team. I was studying camels, which is also a hoof stock. One day, my colleagues from the antelope office came and asked me to join them, and I did.”

Can you tell me a bit more about the Derbianus Conservation? What are the main aims of the project?

“Derbianus Conservation is an NGO which was established in 2010 and which followed a series of very successful projects carried out by the faculty.

“It was established because the support from the governmental has ended. Due to the change in the Czech Republic’s policy, Senegal was no longer a priority country, so we couldn’t rely on receiving support from the government.

“So we decided to establish the NGO to be able to sell merchandising and to reach funds from different resources.”

It is quite an extensive project, so what kind of programs are you currently running?

“Our year-round activities within the conservation program involve annual identification of new-born calves. It means that we or our students from the faculty are directly present in the herd of the Derby elands.

“We are following the animals, and try to recognize which calf belongs to which mother. We need to observe the suckling directly, which is quite a challenging task.

“The information is very important because each Eland has a different stripe pattern and shape of the stripes on the flank and we can identify them according to these unique patterns.

It is very important for us to teach the Senegalese that the Western Derby eland could be considered a flagship species for their country.

“Based on the relationships between individuals, like mother and calf pairs, we can create a complete stud book and a complete pedigree of the whole semi-captive population.

“This is of great use, because we can really plan the breeding management and we can avoid inbreeding, maintaining as much genetic diversity as we can in the population.”

To what extent do you cooperate with the local community in Senegal?

“Of course we know that we will not be in Senegal forever and that the Senegalese themselves have much more influence on the Derby Eland than we have.

“That’s why we are running a series of education awareness programs staring with school kids, going all the way to the Senegalese parliament and universities.

“It is very important for us to teach the Senegalese that there is this animal that could be considered a flagship species for Senegal. We are also teaching tourists that coming to Senegal means seeing the Derby Eland. That is why saving the Derby Eland can actually contribute to a better Senegal.”

You have recently launched a new project called Back Home. Can you tell me a little bit more about it?

“Back Home is a very important part of our activities. As I said, we have been mostly working with the semi-captive population in the fences reserves.

“By now, the number of Elands in the reserves has grown to such an extent that we decided to establish another breeding centre, directly in the Niocolo Koba National Park, in the home area of the Western Derby Elands.

“During the first phase of the project, we want to transport five males there to see if they are able to adapt to the new conditions. Later, when we are sure that the Elands can cope with the environment, we will release some of them with satellite collars to observe if they join the wild ones.

“We will also monitor them with drones, to see what they are doing, whether they have social interactions and so on. And hopefully we will finally succeed to create a breeding group in the fenced area of the Niokolo Koba.

Western Derby eland,  photo: Pavel Novák
“The last aim of the project is to catch some other wild Western Derby Elands and move them to the fenced reserves to ensure that the semi-captive population has a good genetic quality and to ensure the survival of the species in the enclosures.”

How long you spend each year in Senegal?

“For me it’s a bit complicated at the moment, because I have a family and kids. So it involves a lot of negotiations. This year I spent the whole month of February in Senegal. Usually there are several weeks during the dry season when we really work directly with the animals.

“Then there are several weeks in autumn when we work mainly in Dakar, with the diplomatic missions and so on. So for me it’s about six weeks per year. But we have other team members who are not so occupied with families. So there is someone on the spot for at least half a year.”

What do you do when you are not saving Derby Elands?

“I am working at the faculty of Tropical AgriSciences as a head of the department of animal science and food processing. So I am mostly teaching and I do research, mostly behaviour research.

“I also work with the zoo communities, with antelope and giraffe breeders, but even my other activities are somehow connected with antelopes and are supporting the Western Derby Elands conservation.”