Investigating the Uganda Sitatunga’s Habitat

Photo from Machan of Sitatunga 2017 Annual Report5

“Well-regulated hunting can provide crucial funds for conservation, especially in areas seldom visited by tourists. However, sustainable harvest management requires knowledge about populations and habitat.” – Camille Warbington. University of Alberta.

The sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekii) is often referred to as Africa’s only amphibious antelope. Hunters are faced with a tough challenge in pursuing sitatunga in some of the densest swamps in Africa. The same challenge makes it difficult for researchers to determine sitatunga habitat use, movement patterns, sex ratios and genetic diversity.

 

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There is little scientific data available on whether the sitatunga prefers dense wetland vegetation or crop-raiding from dry land adjacent to rivers.  Equally mysterious are the movements of males and females during the wet and dry seasons.

In order to address the gaps in scientific knowledge and help ensure the sustainability of sitatunga hunting in Uganda, SCI Foundation has recently begun a research program in partnership with the University of Alberta. The Uganda Sitatunga Project aims to utilize radio telemetry, mark-resight population estimation, and genetic analysis to fill the data gap which makes this species so difficult to manage.

 

Preliminary research has discovered that sitatunga are not strictly limited to wetlands, and their habitat requirements are far more sophisticated than previously thought.  As a semi-aquatic antelope species, their dependence on river ecosystems is obvious.  What is less certain, however, is whether their populations are stable or decreasing since their habitat is being modified by human activities such as logging, charcoal production, resource extraction, agriculture, village development, and human-wildlife conflict.  These threats to habitat mean the identification of valuable wildlife corridors is crucial to developing a sound wildlife management plan.

The first objective of this project, which started during the wet season of 2015 and 2016, was to collar adult male and female sitatunga with GPS radio collars. Combined with observers and trail cameras, individual sitatunga locations were “captured” in the data.  Together images and GPS coordinates will be compiled to accurately map range use and density.  Once the sitatunga’s home range is identified, utilization distribution will help researchers establish how the different habitat types are used.

 

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The location of the research project is in central Uganda along the Mayanja River. Therefore, the second objective is to estimate abundance of sitatunga in the Mayanja papyrus swamp ecosystem.  This area is part of the Nile River watershed in the Nakaseke District of Uganda, having two dry seasons (December-February; June-August) and very little of the land cultivation.  During this project in late January to early February 2017 a large portion of the papyrus-dominated wetland burned due to drier than usual weather conditions.  From shoreline to shoreline on the Mayanja River a large scale fire reduced the area to bare ground.  As catastrophic as this may sound, in just two months’ time the burned area regenerated.  Research will span the entire year to capture differences in sitatunga behavior between the wet and dry seasons. Once a density model is developed for the sitatunga in the study area, researchers will extrapolate the model to other parts of the sitatunga range and estimate population size throughout Uganda.

Objective three will be to collect genetic material from three sources: harvested male sitatunga, individuals captured during the radio collaring process, and from scat piles found opportunistically.  This genetic data will allow researchers Dr. Mark S. Boyce and PhD Candidate Camille Warbington to determine if the sitatunga population is closed, or if immigration is taking place along with the average number of migrants per generation.  This work will also help determine male-female dispersal, another so far unknown aspect of sitatunga behavior.

2015 Annual Sitatunga Report

2016 Annual Sitatunga Report

2017 Mid-Season Sitatunga Annual Report

The researchers of this project will be attending the SCI Convention 2018 to share the results of this study and answer any questions about how this data will be used by the Uganda Wildlife Authority.  While a greater understanding of the Mayanja ecosystem can aid in the preservation of this important wetland habitat, potential economic benefits include a far more advanced wildlife management plan.  Hunting revenue will translate into improved conservation of Ugandan ecosystems, since this project will allow the government to set accurate science-based quotas.  The primary benefit will be to the people of Uganda and local landowners, who will be empowered to exercise stewardship over their natural resources.  As in many countries in Africa, hunting income will go primarily to local communities while providing long-term employment in rural areas.

 

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