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Sunrise, Swamps, and Sitatunga | The Secretive Antelope of Kasanka

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Sitatunga | Encounters with the Amphibious Enigma

Embarking on a Sunrise Safari

The early morning mist hovered over the marshland. The sun began to rise above the tangled, impenetrable reeds, turning the sky from violet and grey to pale pink. The floodplain was below us. As our eyes became accustomed to the dim light, we watched as, one by one, Sitatunga emerged silently from the dense beds of phragmites and papyrus and began grazing in the open.

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Spotting Sitatunga at Vivienne’s Hide, Kasanka National Park

Kasanka National Park, though one of Zambia’s smallest, is a wildlife paradise with diverse landscapes, from rivers and lakes to wetlands and forests. Here, amidst this tranquil setting, lies Vivienne’s Hide, offering a front-row seat to witness the enchanting spectacle of Sitatunga grazing at sunrise. As early risers, they come alive just after dawn, making it the perfect time to witness their beauty.

The Adaptations of Sitatunga: Amphibious Wonders

Learn about the unique adaptations of Sitatunga that enable them to thrive in their semi-aquatic habitat. Their elongated, widely splayed, banana-shaped hooves allow them to walk almost silently through the water and are perfectly suited to muddy, swampy ground. But when they find themselves on firm terrain, these same hooves can make them rather clumsy. Their shaggy, oily, water-repellent coat is another adaptation to their aquatic lifestyle. Their wedge-shaped and lowered head, coupled with the backward bend of the horns (in males), is ideally suited to easy navigation through dense vegetation. Sitatunga are excellent swimmers, able to move slowly through water for several kilometres. They submerge their entire bodies when swimming to avoid detection from predators, with only their noses and eyes poking above the water.

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Secretive Antelope of Africa | Less Known but Fascinating

Despite being common and abundant in African swamps and permanent marshes, Sitatunga is one of the most secretive and least known of Africa’s large fauna. Females are fawn-coloured with vertical white stripes and spots across their rump, providing camouflage in dappled light. Males are larger, chocolate brown, with long, spiralled ivory-tipped horns, a mane, and a white stripe down their spine.

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Insights from Vera Rduch’s Research

Vera Rduch’s research information has been taken from [Vera Rduch, 2013. Ecology and Population Status of the Puku Antelope (Kobus Vardonii LIVINGSTONE, 1857)

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PhD student Vera Rduch conducted her thesis on puku in Kasanka National Park and collected information on the park’s Sitatunga. Sightings of puku and Sitatunga grazing together on the flood plains, combined with camera trap images of them entering woodlands in the late evening during the hot, dry season (Sept–Oct), showed that while Sitatunga tend to graze on young papyrus and reed shoots for the bulk of their diet, they don’t limit themselves to swamp vegetation. In some parks, they have even been recorded feeding on elephant dung, obtaining nutrients from undigested seeds.

Survival Challenges | Threats to Sitatunga

Using faecal analysis, Rduch ascertained that, in Kasanka, crocodiles feed on Sitatunga, which is not surprising given their considerable overlap in habitat. She also found Sitatunga hair in the scat of civet and white-tailed mongooses, who must have fed on Sitatunga carrion as scavengers. Sitatunga don’t only fall victim to natural predators. Their regularly used, well-worn pathways through reeds and papyrus, between feeding and resting areas, make them especially vulnerable to poachers’ snares and hunters with dogs and guns. Sitatunga are prized bush meat. In Zambia, they are afforded some protection because they are classed as a ‘government trophy’, meaning if a poacher is caught with Sitatunga meat, he will get a more severe sentence than if caught with puku or common duiker meat.

Sitatunga Breeding and Motherhood

Sitatunga breed throughout the year, females usually producing a single offspring after an approximate seven-month gestation period. A calf will weigh between 3.5 and 4 kilograms at birth and potentially double in weight during its first months. After the birth, the female hides her calf on a vegetation platform, secluded in dry reeds for protection. This youngster will stay with its mother, being suckled by her for about six months and learning to navigate the swamp safely, following its mother about, even after she has given birth again. A calf takes time to master the specialised gait of the Sitatunga and will often, in the early months, lose its balance and fall into the water.

Conservation Status and Habitat Challenges

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Though classified under the Least Concern category by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), habitat loss is the most severe threat to the species’ survival. Other threats include the increasing loss of wetlands that has led to isolated populations and long-term changes in the water level affecting nearby vegetation and, consequently, their diet. In Zambia, vast areas of the Bangweulu and Busanga swamps are burnt yearly, placing animals like the Sitatunga at grave risk.

A Glorious Sunset and Farewell to Sitatunga

At the end of the day, we returned to Vivienne’s Hide as the sun began to sink in the sky and were rewarded with a spectacular sunset tinting the floodplain orange and scarlet. The grazing Sitatunga glowed golden in the fading light. We stayed until we could see them no longer, and as the moon rose, climbed down the ladder and left them in peace.

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Sitatunga Facts and Figures

1. Sitatunga or marshbuck get their scientific name, Tragelaphus spekii, from John Hanning Speke, the English explorer who described them in 1863. Speke first observed the Sitatunga at “Little Windermere,” now Lake Lwelo in Tanzania.

2. Sitatunga stand between 75 and 100cm tall and weigh between 50 and 125kg.

3. Researchers estimate that the global population of Sitatunga is somewhere around 170,000. They are found in more than 25 African countries, with almost 40% living in protected wilderness areas.

4. Sitatunga have an unusual leg length, often looking hunched over because their rear legs are much longer than their front legs. This difference in leg length helps them to balance better in marshy areas. Another interesting fact about Sitatunga legs is that their pasterns (the part of the leg just above the hoof) are flexible. This unusual leg construction makes it easy for Sitatunga to run on damp surfaces.

5. The average lifespan for a Sitatunga in the wild is 12 years (and up to 22 years in captivity). Their age can often be told by looking at the colour of their coat. As they age, their coats turn from a light russet brown to a darker greyish-brown colour.

6. Bushbuck and Sitatunga are genetically similar enough to hybridise. Hybrids between bongo and Sitatunga have also proved to be fertile.

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