Postcard from Uganda: Researching an elusive wetland antelope species

Knee-deep in a tropical marsh, boots tangled in papyrus stems…was that splash a crocodile, or was it my field assistant?  With a skilled deployment including use of local knowledge, and a little luck, this trail camera will contain pictures of sitatunga, a wetland-specialist antelope species found here, in Uganda, and other wetlands of sub-Saharan Africa.

With support from Mitacs Accelerate International, I am working alongside Uganda Wildlife Safaris to study the ecology of sitatunga, a semi-aquatic antelope species endemic to wetlands of sub-Saharan Africa. My goal is to provide data to the Uganda Wildlife Authority to sustainably manage the sitatunga herd, with the added benefit of understanding the wetlands that support the sitatunga population.  We are collecting data from trail cameras, because sitatunga are elusive and much better suited to life in the papyrus marshes of the Mayanja River in central Uganda than humans, or even other wildlife species.  After only a few days of trying to move through the papyrus, I appreciate why there is little scientific information about wild sitatunga – and why even the published reports are anecdotal.  My research will provide much needed baseline information about sitatunga:  basic information about movement patterns, habitat use, and density. 

As it turns out, trail cameras are excellent tools for the study of sitatunga.  Once placed in potential areas of high sitatunga movement, they take pictures of anything that crosses in front of the detection sensor – and the batteries last for months!  In addition to tracking habitat use, the sitatunga are individually identifiable, much like leopards, based on the spot patterns on their faces and flanks.  This means that even though sitatunga are moving through the papyrus, we can track them through space and time by identifying them at multiple camera sites in the swamp. 

Other parts of my research focus on plant diversity of sitatunga feeding sites, comparing sitatunga space use to that of other wild herbivores and domestic cattle, and the connectivity of this river basin to other parts of sitatunga range within Uganda.  This project involves classic fieldwork-driven wildlife data collection with modern statistical modelling and DNA methods with the goal of understanding this unique and rare species.

My research will facilitate a management plan based upon science, and provide a template for studies in other parts of sitatunga range, and possibly even for other elusive species living in dense habitats.  As a large-bodied antelope, sitatunga are targets for the bushmeat trade, and the wetlands are under pressure from a growing human population that requires land for agriculture.  Thus, acquiring baseline data on this wetland-dependent species is critical for future management.

By Camille Warbington, PhD Candidate in Ecology at the University of Alberta, Department of Biological Sciences


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