Reintroducing Mhorr gazelles into the wild
The Mhorr gazelle is an endangered species of the Sahelian area. It is one of the most singular, threatened and scarcely-studied gazelle species of northern Africa. It is considered by locals as part of their cultural wealth. Reintroduction into the wild of captivity-bred individuals has first been tried in Southern Morocco, supported by Argos satellite telemetry.
The Dama gazelle (Nanger dama) lives in the desert and semi-desert areas of North Africa. It is characterized by its physiological, ecological and behavioral adaptations to this arid environment. The species is currently classified as Critically Endangered (IUCN Red List 2018), considered extinct from Senegal, Mauritania, Sudan and the Atlantic region of Southern Morocco. Fewer than 250 individuals are estimated to be in the wild (in Niger, Mali and Chad), and around 1000 in captivity (of which around 350 are Mhorr gazelles).
Reintroducing Mhorr gazelles
Among the three existing subspecies, the Mhorr gazelle (Nanger dama mhorr) is the most colored and western-distributed Dama gazelle. In order to avoid the complete extinction of this subspecies, a captive breeding program was initiated in 1971 in the Sahara Rescue Center at the Estación Experimental de Zonas Aridas (EEZA-National Spanish Research Council) in Almeria (SE Spain). In May 2015, local Moroccan authorities (Haut-Commissariat des Eaux et Forêts et à la Lutte Contre la Désertification) in collaboration with a local NGO (“Nature Initiative”) decided to start, for the first time, a project to reintroduce Mhorr gazelle into the wild, using gazelles kept under semi-wild conditions in a fenced protected area in the Safia Natural Reserve.
Seven of the gazelles were monitored with satellite telemetry collars, including Argos PTTs. This monitoring provided previously unavailable statistics on the time spent resting, feeding or standing up, moving at moderate speed, running or escaping, even though there are differences between individuals and also between the hours of the day. These behaviours differ slightly from what has been observed under semi-wild conditions. During the monitoring period, different phases were observed: the first few days after release (when gazelles stayed close to the fence of the reserve), followed by long-distance exploratory movements until they had established territories; and finally, daily movements between established territories.
Attack by dogs & poaching events
The first group of 24 gazelles was attacked by dogs not long after the release, resulting in the death of seven of them. Their reaction was to get back to the fenced area, a reaction which trapped them against the fence instead of protecting them. Later on, when being hunted by poachers, they fled. This suggests that it might be better to release the animals further from the reserve, (when animals of their group are still in captivity), especially if there are predators around.
At some point during the tracking period, hunters broke into the gazelle territories illegally. The gazelles fled, with exceptional long distances (up to 60 km) traveled in a single day. The fact that they found a favorable escape route by the oueds, identified the mountains as a safe haven and managed to return to their territory once the danger had passed shows their ability to adapt to living in the wild, even when bred in captivity.
Importance of satellite telemetry
The use of satellite telemetry collars to monitor released Mhorr gazelles has once again shown the importance of this technology for reintroduction projects. Not only because it provides valuable information about the species’ natural history (movements, activity), but because they are essential for locating animals and knowing whether they are alive or dead, which, in short, is a measure of the success of the project.
This first experience of reintroduction of Mhorr gazelles into the wild shows the ability of the species to recover most of their behavioral capacity to live in freedom, after generations of living in captivity or under semi-captive conditions. The results are positive. It has confirmed that dogs as predators and poaching continue to be the main threat to reintroduction projects in Southern Morocco. The experience gained will also help to increase the success of future attempts.
Links & references
- Teresa Abáigar, Emilio Rodríguez-Caballero, Cristina Martínez, Zouhair Amaouch, Mohamed L. Samlali, Fernando Aparicio, Taufik ElBalla, Abderrahim Essalhi, Jesús Fernández, Francisco García, Moulaye Haya, Abba M’Bareck, Hamady M’Bareck, Luis M. González, Pablo Fernández de Larrínoa, 2019: The first reintroduction project for mhorr gazelle (Nanger dama mhorr) into the wild: Knowledge and experience gained to support future conservation actions, Global Ecology and Conservation, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gecco.2019.e00680
Photo: Group of Mhorr gazelle with a GPS collar (credits T. Abaigar)