The RIDDLE of the ROAN
BBC Wildlife|October 2021
Blighted by clumsy conservation could there now be signs of hope for Africa’s second largest antelopes?
Mark Eveleigh

Roan antelope are the most enigmatic of large antelopes and remain relatively misunderstood.” It’s the end of a long summer and Leanne Huber is gazing across the grasslands that are home to 40 roan antelope. She’s been working with these animals for more than a decade and has come to know them well.

“Because their babies are quite easily taken by predators they have a reputation of being bad parents, but it’s not true at all. When they’re defending their young they can seem intimidatingly huge!”

Leanne and her husband, wildlife veterinarian Dr Paul Huber, run the roan breeding programme at Ant’s Hill on South Africa’s Waterberg plateau.

“We also breed sable, eland and gemsbok here,” she continues, “but the roan are my favourites. They’re particularly protective during the weeks when their young are hidden in the long grass. If we even walk close to a hiding place the dominant cow will come racing over.”

Roan are the second biggest antelope (after the eland) and their barrel-chested, horse-like build does indeed give them a powerful appearance. Named for their reddish colour, roan are sometimes mistaken for the darker sable. Their Afrikaans name bastergemsbok (‘bastard gemsbok’) relates to the distinctive gemsbok-like black-and-white facial markings, but their distinctive fringed ears give them a comically startled appearance. Even these unique appendages remain an evolutionary mystery, though it is possible that they might provide protection in the Highveld habitat, where winter temperatures can plummet below freezing. “Roan are certainly prone to frostbite,” says Huber, “and when it gets really cold they can lose the tips of their ears.”

As he manoeuvres his Range Rover game vehicle through a breeding compound where two-week-old roan calves suckle from their mothers, he continues: “In most of Africa the roan population has suffered from predation, habitat loss and disease. They’re particularly susceptible to theileria – a tick-borne disease that affects them almost as malaria affects humans. Sometimes the mother transmits the disease through the placenta so that the young are born with it.”

Wild roan populations suffer heavily from predation and numbers frequently plummet even in areas where zebra and wildebeest flourish by comparison. For this reason, they’re sometimes considered to be relatively helpless – a sort of gentle giant. But this is far from the truth. As biologist Wendell Swank wrote in his 1971 book African Antelope: “It is said by people who have spent a lifetime in the bush that even the lion will not attack a full-grown roan.”

Tricky to track

This thought was at the front of my mind earlier that morning when I left my cottage at Ant’s Hill to set out on horseback in search of the free-range roan that had been released from the breeding compounds. Ant’s Hill is one of the few places in Africa where you can ride among roan, as these animals – like all the reserve’s wildlife, including white rhinos and giraffes – are accustomed to grazing alongside horses.

Within less than an hour, ace guide Sekhwiri Langa had managed to track down a bachelor herd in the midst of a dense acacia thicket. As we approached almost within touching distance I realised that, even from horseback, these antelopes seemed intimidatingly big, their horns sharp and sturdy. Though roan were traditionally hunted for meat, they were never particularly targeted by trophy hunters: with the longest recorded horns measuring 128cm, they are unspectacular next to those of the sable (165cm) and greater kudu (188cm).

This bachelor herd was made up of about 10 fairly young males, still far from being statuesque dominant bulls, yet their powerful build lent them a noble appearance.

“At around two years of age, roan bulls are driven from the herd by the dominant bull,” Sekhwiri whispered. “They spend the next three or four years in bachelor herds until they have the strength to attempt to take over a herd for themselves.”

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