Ever Heard of the Bontebok? It’s an African Animal Humans Nearly Destroyed, Then Saved

Part of this conservation success story relies on the bontebok’s inability to jump

A bontebok Felix Gottwald via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The African bontebok is a medium-size antelope with dark shading on its flanks and marked with white stockings, belly and rump. At one point only 17 of these animals existed in the world, but now they are doing fine, reports Matt Miller for The Nature Conservancy. The bontebok owes its bounce back from near extinction to a number of things, but one stands out. It's the thing that both nearly killed, and ultimately saved the species. The bontebok can’t jump.

Miller writes:

Many African antelopes are known for their dramatic jumping ability. The springbok, for instance, can jump 13 feet in the air.

Other species like kudu and impala have similar athletic abilities. A fence presents no obstacle for these animals. Not so with the bontebok. It can make little leaps, but it cannot clear even a basic livestock fence — the only fence available in the 1800s.

When Europeans arrived on the South African Cape of Good Hope in 1650, they began the Dutch colonization that imperiled people and wildlife of the region, including the bontebok. The large animal only lives in the Western Cape of southern Africa and they were slaughtered for meat.

By the early 1800s, only one herd still lived on the Cape, on the farm of a man named Alexander van der Bijl. And those last 17 remaining bontebak, couldn’t escape his enclosure. Since they couldn’t escape, they couldn’t be hunted. By the 1930s, the herd had expanded to the low hundreds, but it took the designation of a national park to help them thrive. 

In 1931, the aptly-named Bontebok National Park gave the animal a wilder place to live. Only 200 live in the park at the time, but by transferring surplus animals to other preserves and game ranches, managers have expanded the bontebok herd to between 2,500 to 3,000 individuals globally. 

"That hardly makes it abundant, but its future is considered secure," Miller writes. "It’s one of the most dramatic turnarounds for a large mammal, ever."

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