Managing rare endemic species: Black-faced dollar signs

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By Dr Tammie Matson

It’s right under our noses – a magnificent, vulnerable, arid-adapted antelope with great ecological and economic value. It numbers less than 4 000 in the wild and isn’t found anywhere else in the world. It’s not only physically distinct, it’s also a genetically unique subspecies. Namibia’s black-faced impala, Aepyceros melampus petersi, is all these things and more, but – amazingly – it’s also in great need of a good publicity campaign. The time has come to wake up and smell the mopane leaves, and for Namibians to fully realise the potential of this unique, endemic treasure.

Recent studies on the black-faced impala’s habitat preferences and the factors affecting its translocation success and genetics have set the stage. The success of the Community Based Natural Resource Management programme has drawn back the curtain. The national management strategy for black-faced impala is now in its final draft stages and almost ready to be put into practice.

Discovery of a genetic marker

Generations of geographic separation led to the evolution of the black-faced impala in north-western Namibia and south-western Angola. In 2004 research revealed that not only does the black-faced impala look different, but is also unique in terms of its mitochondrial DNA. Etosha’s population does not show signs of hybridisation with common impala that frequent land bordering the park, which means it can be used as a ‘pure’ source of black-faced impala for translocations to private land.

Enhancing the distribution and abundance of black-faced impala in Namibia is recognised as a key objective in the draft management strategy. Almost half the population (±1 500) is found in Etosha in five sub-populations, reflecting the initial release sites of the early 1970s. An approximate 1 800 inhabit commercial game farms, the majority of which operate trophy hunting, but few sub-populations number more than 200. Population numbers in the Kunene Region are still a mystery, and black-faced impala are probably extinct in Angola. Because so many are found on private land, the trophy hunting and tourism industries have a major role to play in their future, and establishing new populations has become a lot more enticing.

Black-faced dollar signs

Black-faced impalas don’t go cheap – and nor should they. At a recent game auction, black-faced impala sold for N$9 500 each, compared with just N$1 300 for a common impala. On trophy-hunting farms, a black-faced impala trophy is valued at €1 350.

The draft management plan recognises that protecting our competitive edge by marketing Namibia as the only place hunters can shoot and tourists can see a genuine, pure black-faced impala is essential. Hybridisation between common and black-faced impala is a direct threat to the marketability and financial value of our arid-adapted subspecies. Black-faced impala are worth gold – hybrids are not.

One of the major limitations on the expansion of the black-faced impala population is the fact that trophies cannot be imported to the United States. This is a serious disincentive for farmers to build up their populations because they cannot realise their full economic potential.

How are we going to do it?

The vision contained in the draft management plan is the re-establishment of black-faced impala as a distinct, valuable subspecies in viable breeding populations in an exclusive core area in Namibia and the promotion of black-faced impala as an economically viable alternative to common impala. In this core area, all common impala and hybrids will be removed and phased re-introductions of black-faced impala will take place in the next twenty years.

An incentive scheme similar to the Wildlife Breeding Stock Loan scheme run by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) is proposed to allow landowners to establish viable populations of 30 black-faced impala at little personal cost. The only cost to landowners to be eligible for registration as a ‘pure’ black-faced impala farm and to apply for a breeding stock loan is that they will be responsible for the complete removal of all common impala from their properties.

The draft management plan proposes that the MET loans farmers/conservancies a founder population of 30 black-faced impala from Etosha at no cost, on the proviso that the farm meets all the criteria to be registered as a ‘pure’ black-faced impala farm. These criteria will include the complete absence of common impala on the farm/conservancy or on the land bordering the farm/conservancy and a commitment to the effective breeding of pure black-faced impala, including conducting annual counts to monitor growth.

It is proposed that after five years, or when the population exceeds 60 individuals, the farmer must return 30 black-faced impala to the MET for translocation elsewhere. Farmers in a minimum two-farm or 20-kilometre buffer zone around Etosha, especially those with common impala, will be targeted by the MET and prioritised for loans, pending the total removal of all their common impala. This is to protect the source population of black-faced impala in Etosha from hybridisation.

Why 30?

In the last three decades, initial population size influenced the translocation success of black-faced impala to farms more than any other factor, although the presence of cheetah also influenced translocation success. Where cheetah were present on a farm, black-faced impala populations were less likely to have a positive growth rate. However, black-faced impala populations appeared to persist in the presence of cheetah if a sufficient initial population was released. Based on the history of translocations in Namibia, releases of at least 16 black-faced impala are necessary for successful translocation.

What now?

A study to assess the potential for reintroducing black-faced impala to their historic range in north-western Namibia is planned for this year in partnership with the Kunene Communal Conservancies Association, the MET and the NNF. After black-faced impala had almost been wiped out in the Kunene Region by the 1970s, the recent success of the communal conservancies programme has created an exciting opportunity for population enhancement through reintroduction.

The key to the conservation of the subspecies is the participation of landowners throughout Namibia and a commitment to promoting the black-faced impala’s reputation as a unique attraction to Namibia. We have a very rare treasure in the black-faced impala, one that could be of much greater value to Namibia. But do we realise what we have?

Impala pros and cons

Black-faced impala

Common impala

Much higher trophy and auction value Low value
Higher tourism value due to rarity Average tourism value
Relatively rare Abundant
Genetically and physically unique to

Namibia and South-western Angola

Common throughout Africa
Unique black-faced mounts Less impressive mounts
Slightly smaller top trophy sizes

(Probably due to population crash up to 1970s, but this is improving.)

Slightly larger horns in Namibia

The draft black-faced impala management plan was funded by Conservation Force (USA) and written in collaboration with NAPHA and MET in 2005. Dr Pauline Lindeque and Tobias Gunzal especially are thanked for their dedication to the conservation of the black-faced impala.

This article appeared in the 2006/7 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.


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