With it’s striking white stripes and tightly spiralled horns, the heritage of Knowsley Safari has been closely linked to the Western Derby Eland since the 1840s. The first ever scientific description of these incredible animals was developed by Dr. Grey of the British Museum, London, during an African expedition funded by the 13th Earl of Derby. Standing as the world’s largest species of antelope, the wild population of the Western Derby Eland has suffered tremendously over the past few decades and is currently extinct in several African countries.
It’s because of this threat to the Western Derby Eland that we have taken on the challenge of working with pro-active conservation efforts to increase awareness and understanding of these remarkable creatures. As a part of support for the project, we sent animal keeper Leah Drury to Senegal, home to the last remaining wild herds of Eland, to dive head first into the frontline of defence for these critically endangered animals. By capturing a journal of her time in Senegal, Leah has worked to develop a week by week series of entries detailing the lives of the Western Derby Eland, as well as the dedicated conservationists working to ensure their survival.
From 3-32 degrees Celsius! After 10 hours on a plane and wandering around airports I finally arrived in a scorching Senegal, the last home of the critically endangered Western Derby Eland (Taurotragus derbianus derbianus). This is Senegal’s largest native land mammal and is now only naturally found in one place, Niokolo koba national park.
For the next five weeks I won’t be working in the now frosty rhino reserve of Knowsley Safari, but collaborating with researchers from Czech University of Life Sciences ,Prague, to manage two groups of Western Derby Eland that are being bred in semi captive reserves to ensure that this species does not go extinct.
I will be spending two weeks at Bandia reserve, which is open daily to visitors and tourists, working with these unique animals alongside Marketa Grunova (PhD student in environmental education) and Anna Kubatova (Phd student studying the genetic viability of the WDE). Together we will be investigating the breeding health of the herds, working with local school children to increase their awareness of the environment and their native species, as well as identifying the new calves that have been born in the rainy season this year.
Each Western Derby Eland can be individually identified. Unlike their cousins, the Common Eland, they keep their striped coat for life and no two Derby Eland have the same stripes, like a thumb print! Because of this each animal needs to have its photo clearly taken from both its right and left side annually. Sometimes some of the stripes can be a lighter colour than the others, so it’s important to not take the photo in the shadows or in very bright light. This can mean that the process can be time consuming, making sure the photos are of a good enough quality to be used for the identification sheets.
After an hour travelling out of the capitol, Dakar, I arrive at Bandia reserve and meet the team at our accommodation. We stay with the reserves night guards. It’s here that we set up camp; it’s basic and functional but we have all the luxury of home, including a well for fresh water which some smaller local wildlife take advantage of, as well and a shower block. Glamping!
A family of the reserve workers had offered to cook traditional Senegalese cuisine for us called Thieboudienne (fish, vegetables and rice). The food tastes great and is really healthy. It means that after a day of working in the hot sun, tracking the Eland herd, we don’t have to think about cooking. Also, as I quickly found out, when we return from a day in the bush, the Eland photos have to be catalogued according to individuals that night or we’ll fall behind on the workload… With a total of 66 animals to identify and photograph in Bandia there is no time to cook! It arrives wrapped in a beautifully printed cloth to keep it fresh and prevent our naughty neighbours, the Patas monkeys, from getting into it!
After food, we start sorting the days Eland photographs late into the night with the help of our head torches (as there are frequent power cuts and the lights stay off for a while) and a mug of mango juice.
Once the days’ work is complete its time to tuck up under the mosquito net and get the walking boots ready for another hot and dusty day tomorrow!