Status of the Wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) in the Wild 1967-2005
by Richard D. Estes & Rod East
Black Wildebeests in Namibia. Picture by Ozondjahe Hunting Safaris
Tim Davenport, Country Director. WCS Tanzania Program writes in the prologue to the important wildebeest working paper of Richard Estes and the late Rod East:
Few large mammals conjure up the wide-open spaces of the African savanna quite so evocatively as the wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus). Known also by its Bushman name gnu, and across much of East Africa in KiSwahili as nyumbu, this charismatic antelope has become synonymous in the public mind with the short-grass plains of the great Serengeti. It is here that a million wildebeest seek out forage and calving grounds during the annual migration, offering one of the world’s most extraordinary wildlife spectacles. This unique antelope remains the consummate flagship species, linked irrevocably to its landscape and epitomizing the free-ranging wildness that used to typify so many savanna ecosystems.
There is little doubt Tanzania is one of the most important countries in Africa for wildlife. Sadly however, the integrity of Tanzania’s wild places faces grave challenges, not least in balancing the needs of a growing and developing human population with a globally significant environment. Against this background, it is important to remind ourselves that, of all Tanzania’s mammals, the wildebeest is probably the single species that contributes most to the national economy. In a recent consumer survey, the wildebeest migration was cited as one of the main reasons tourists visited Tanzania. But the wildebeest is a species of continental fascination and value. It ranges across sizeable landscapes of eastern and southern Africa, and for each of its range states this unique animal provides meat, tourism revenue, and plays crucial roles in local cultures and ecosystems. The wildebeest is a harbinger of the success or failure of conservation interventions. For all these reasons, the Status of the Wildebeest in the Wild 1967-2005 by Richard D. Estes and Rod East is not only an invaluable treatise on a pivotal large mammal, but also an extremely important conservation text.
It is perhaps no coincidence that such an important species should have been studied by two of the continent’s most dedicated conservation biologists. Author of the highly acclaimed The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Animals, The Behavior Guide to African Mammals, and the National Audubon Society Field Guide to African Wildlife, Richard Estes has an encyclopedic knowledge of the continent’s mammalian fauna. Mentored early in his career by Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen, the co-founders of ethology and co-Nobel Laureates, Richard spent decades studying Africa’s large mammals. However, it is in the wildebeest, subject of his doctoral dissertation, that he has always had a particular interest, and his publications provide most of the world’s knowledge of wildebeest behavior. Co-author Rod East rightly dubbed him the ‘Guru of the Gnu’.
Nyasaland Wildebeest in Tanzania. Picture by Christophe Morio
The late Rod East is generally considered to have contributed more to the conservation of African antelopes than any other individual. He was a long-standing member and co-chair of the Antelope Specialist Group, advising on the conservation of antelopes for the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). He compiled and published key data on all African antelope species, including his mammoth 1998 African Antelope Database, and also raised considerable funds to protect threatened African antelope populations. His contribution to conservation was recognized with the Sir Peter Scott Award for Conservation Merit in 2006.
Blue Wildebeest in South Africa. Picture by TOM
Together, these authors have compiled data on the wildebeest from forty years of research; the result is a monumental work that reaches across the continent. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has been active in Tanzania for a similar length of time, using science, education, and partnerships to help government and Tanzanians manage their unique natural heritage. In its current strategic plan, the WCS Tanzania Program identified four of the greatest challenges to wildlife as natural resource extraction, the interaction of human livelihoods and biodiversity, climate change, and landcover change. All these challenges now confront the wildebeest. The WCS Tanzania Program is consequently very proud to support this extraordinary volume, and is confident it will serve both to guide and inspire conservationists across the African continent for decades to come.
Black Wildebeest in Namibia. Picture by Paul Brisso
WCS Working Paper No 37, July 2009, ISSN 1530-4426 Online posting: ISSN 1534-7389; Copies of WCS Working Papers are available at www.wcs.org