The sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekii) is a swamp-dwelling antelope found throughout Central Africa, centering on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon and parts of Southern Sudan as well as in Ghana, Botswana, Zambia, Gabon, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya.
The Sitatunga probably occurred formerly alongside waterways throughout the lowland forest zone of West and Central Africa, extending into swamp systems in the savanna zones of Central, East and southern Africa. It is now rare and localized in West Africa, but it remains widespread and locally common in the Central African forests and in some swamp systems within the savannas of Central, East and southern Africa. They are now extinct in Niger and probably Togo, but have been confirmed as still surviving in Ghana (May and Lindholm in press).
Habitat and Ecology
Sitatunga occur in tall and dense vegetation of perennial and seasonal swamps, marshy clearings within forests, riverine thickets, and mangrove swamps. In savanna environments, they are typically found in extensive monospecific stands of papyrus Cyperus papyrus and the reeds Phragmites spp. and Echinochloa pyramidalis (May and Lindholm in press). Sitatunga usually avoid open water devoid of vegetation. They are selective mixed feeders taking a range of grasses, sedges and browse (May and Lindholm in press). Sitatunga coexist with the Nile Lechwe in the great Sudd in southern Sudan, and with the Common Lechwe in Zambia, Botswana, and Angola.
Sitatunga stand about one and a half metres at the shoulder. Sitatunga have a water-proof coat which is dark brown in males and reddish brown in females. Both sexes have white stripes and spots as well as white splotches on their faces. Their hooves are long and thin to deal with the Sitatunga's swampy habitat. Males have a mane as well as horns, which are twisted and can reach almost a metre in length.
Sitatunga live in papyrus swamps and are very good swimmers. They may take to the water to evade predators such as leopards or African wild dogs, lying submerged in pools with only their nostrils above the surface. They are crepuscular although they are also somewhat active at night and day. Sitatunga can be solitary; females tend to stick in herds while males become mostly solitary after mating.
Loss of habitat is the main threat to the future persistence of Sitatunga. The ever-increasing loss of wetlands throughout their range has cut off former routes of dispersal and many populations are becoming isolated. Sitatunga are vulnerable to long-term changes in water level because it alters vegetation structure, which in turn largely determines their distribution and abundance. Habitat fragmentation, and both lower and higher water levels make them more vulnerable to meat hunting in many parts of its range (May and Lindholm in press). Swamps are also extremely vulnerable to fire; vast areas of Bangweulu and Busanga are burnt each year (May and Lindholm in press). Nonetheless, the Sitatunga shows a remarkable ability to survive near human habitation, provided suitable habitat remains.
About 40% of the population survies in and around protected areas (East 1999), with major, generally stable populations occurring in Dja and Lobeke (Cameroon), Bangassou (Central African Republic), Odzala N.P. and L. Tele-Likouala (Republic of Congo), Salongo N.P. (DR Congo), Bangweulu and Busanga Swamps (Zambia), Okavango Delta (Botswana), and Akagera N.P. (Rwanda) (East 1999; May and Lindholm in press). At present, only a few of these areas receive moderate-high levels of protection and management. The current survival of good Sitatunga populations in other areas, such as Lobeke, Bangweulu and Okavango, is a product of low human population densities rather than active conservation (East 1999).
In some areas, sustainable trophy hunting is an economically important form of utilization of this species, for example, in northern Botswana, which has produced some of Africa’s largest Sitatunga trophies. The large areas of swamp within the Okavango Delta currently provide the Sitatunga with a safe refuge. They should continue to do so, as long as the ecology of the Delta is not altered significantly by factors such as cattle grazing within the swampland, uncontrolled burning, overhunting and hydrological schemes that would affect the water levels in the perennial or seasonal swamps. Moremi Game Reserve contains a limited area of permanent swamp with moderate numbers of sitatunga, but proposals to incorporate the Xo Flats within this reserve would significantly increase the protected population of this antelope (East 1999). The species’ significance as a trophy animal is an important economic incentive for the conservation of its habitat, and hunting zones adjoining national parks and equivalent reserves have the potential to play an increasingly important role in the conservation of the Sitatunga (East 1999).