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Zookeepers, Vets Rally To Save Rare Bontebok Calf

A rare African antelope that almost didn’t live past its first few days is now a month old and well on the road to recovery at the Oregon Zoo.

Keepers were thrilled when 7-year-old bontebok Winter gave birth to a new calf Feb. 2. Bonteboks were once considered among the most imperiled mammals on the planet, and each birth is an important step toward ensuring their long-term survival. 

Excitement quickly turned to concern though, when keepers saw that Winter, an inexperienced bontebok mom, was not nursing her newborn. 

“She was taking care of her calf right away,” said Kelly Gomez, who oversees the zoo’s Africa section. “But she just wasn’t nursing. Sometimes new moms need a little help getting started.”

The calf, which weighed just under 18 pounds at birth, appeared healthy, Gomez said. But since she had not received any colostrum through nursing, she lacked the antibodies needed to fight off infection. To compensate, veterinarians administered a transfusion of plasma from the calf’s father, which had been banked earlier as a precaution.

“We were giving her supplemental bottle-feedings and then returning her back to mom,” Gomez said. “After a few days, Winter started to nurse her a little bit, and we gradually reduced the bottle-feedings as the nursing became more consistent. She’s a very strong, robust little calf.”

The calf has now grown to about 34 pounds, but guests will have to wait until she’s a little bigger — and until the weather’s a little warmer — before she begins exploring the zoo’s Africa savanna area.

Gomez says the small survivor is a testament to one of the most inspiring conservation stories in history: living proof of the impact people can have — both positive and negative — on wildlife and species conservation. 

“A couple hundred years ago, the bontebok was headed for almost certain extinction,” Gomez said. “The fact that they are still around shows how people can make a difference in helping wildlife.”

Though unfamiliar to most Americans today, the bontebok “deserves a place in the annals of conservation history,” according to The Nature Conservancy’s Matt Miller. 

“It is arguably the first African animal saved from human-caused extinction,” said Miller, writing in the conservancy’s science blog. “Its rescue is flat-out one of the most dramatic conservation success stories anywhere.”

In a story that roughly parallels that of the American bison, the bontebok was hunted to the brink of extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries by Dutch settlers to southern Africa, many of whom viewed the native antelope there as pests competing for farmland. Another antelope species, the bluebuck, was declared extinct in 1799, and it seemed inevitable the bontebok would not be far behind.

By 1837, all that stood between the last 17 bontebok on the planet and certain annihilation was a fence. That year, some sympathetic farmers enclosed the herd safely inside their own property, effectively creating the first African antelope preserve.

The measure wouldn’t have worked except for one evolutionary quirk: Bontebok can’t jump. While other antelope species like the impala, eland and kudu almost fly — soaring 10 feet into the air or higher — bontebok can only manage small leaps and could thus be contained by ordinary livestock fencing.

“The ability to jump,” Miller said, “would have been a leap into extinction.”

In 1931, Bontebok National Park was established, and the species gradually started to rebound. Today the bontebok population is estimated to be around 2,500 to 3,000.

“It’s an incredible conservation story,” Gomez said. “Hopefully, we can inspire some similar success stories for the future.”