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A day in the African bush:
The second trimester marks the end of the rains and beginning of the dry season. If I could choose this is clearly the least appealing of periods in the palanca woodlands. In April the climate is hot and moist, the rivers are over-flooding, the soils waterlogged and the fast growing grass is often impenetrable. All this makes the process of moving around across the region, a very painful exercise at best. Then the weather changes sharply as we enter May, when the rains come to a sudden halt. And throughout May and June, the most annoying factor is, no doubt, the long and hard dry grass. The dead grass blocks visibility, hiding tracks and roads while clotting the car’s radiators and its sharp edges cut easily through human skin when we’re on foot.
In any case we were entering a crucial phase in Cangandala, as the cows in the sanctuary completed the first 9 months of confinement in the company of our master bull, so from now on anything was possible… meaning calving of course! In the best case scenario they could calve in May, but I suppose that would be wishful thinking and it just hasn’t happened yet. The animals must require some extra time to adjust to their new condition in semi-captivity and I’m confident that we will have our first pure calves in the next trimester.
In spite of this, there are some very promising signs that we registered on several visits. The first thing to note is that the females, although still packed together, seemed to be more sensitive and not allowing our approach as before (Photos 05, 06). In sharp contrast, the bull seems very relaxed while protecting the herd (Photos 02, 03, 04). Every time we approached the group, the bull would calmly stand in between us and the females while allowing them to quickly vanish into the thick forest. While providing us with some nice views of the bull, this became a very frustrating exercise as we were focusing on getting a clear view of the females. We did however obtained glimpses, and the overall impression was that they did look shiny, healthy and curvy… and on a few photos they do seem to be pregnant (Photo 07)…
On the other hand, the routine monitoring of hybrids (Photos 08, 09, 10) in the remaining park through the trap camera, revealed a big surprise: the hybrids may be capable of breeding after all! This was quite unexpected as we detected no evidence of it for the past few years. The first troubling record was a photograph of Anastacia (the first hybrid caught – also known as our Judas as she was the one who betrayed the herd during the capture operation), alone at one salina and showing a clearly swollen udder (Photo 13). It is still unclear if she did calve, but it strongly suggested breeding behavior and pregnancy (either successful or not). But the shocker wouldn’t take long, when a sequence showing the remaining hybrid group, in which one of the older females was joined by a small two month calf (Photo 11). And as if to clarify any doubts we might had still, they clearly interacted, behaving like every mother and calf do (Photo 12). It’s a fact: the hybrids are capable of breeding!
The immediate obvious question, to which I still don’t have an answer, is: who the hell is the father of that little calf? Or, in other words, what sort of new hybrid do we have now? So far all hybrids were presumed to be F1’s (the product of a cross sable X roan), but now we must have something else, either a F2 (hybridF1 X hybridF1), or a backcross (hybrid F1 X roan or sable). The later of course would result on an animal which will be 75% one species and 25% the other species. The implications of being one or the other type of hybrid can be relevant. While an F2 proves the hybrids can, at least occasionally, breed among themselves, a backcross poses an immediate and real threat of contamination into one of the parent species.
My gut feeling is that we’re dealing with F2’s, mainly because the hybrid group has been consistently seen escorted by an impressive hybrid bull (Photos 14, 15). In the past, the herd was lacking a mature “resident” bull, and this is what must have led the pure sable females to seduce roan bulls, but since last year this young hybrid bull grabbed the empty seat as dominant male. We shouldn’t however rule out just yet, the possibility of having a backcross with a roan bull (or even with the stray sable bull – this seems a remote possibility but it is also the most worrying one).
All this makes it obvious and unavoidable the need for a serious genetic study, to clarify all these issues, and assist us to manage the recovery of the giant sable breeding group while controlling (and understanding) what is happening with the hybrids.