Kampala — In Paara in Murchison Falls National Park, there is probably no animal, except those that accompanied the Biblical Noah to the Ark, that has caused as much debate as the three black Kob previously unknown in the park. Gerald Tenywa went there recently and found wildlife researchers struggling to find answers to questions about their origin.
Curious visitors to Murchison Falls National Park and wildlife experts have had a great deal of their attention consumed by three black Kob that were first sighted in the park four years ago. The three Kob are hanging out with the brown Uganda Kob that have made the Murchison Falls National park habitat their home.
Park authorities are wondering whether the black ones have existed in the park before and had not been discovered or were born with a defective skin like albinos among human beings.
Where are they from?
Others, according to Jennifer Atuhirwe, a park monitoring officer who first made a report about the mysterious black species, say the black Kob probably migrated from southern Sudan where similar species occur.
“We doubt whether the black Kob walked all the way from southern Sudan because it is only large mammals like elephants that are known to migrate long distances,” Atuhirwe says.
She adds that it is not easy for such small mammals to survive predators like lions and hunters who have settled in parts of the corridor used by mammals migrating from Sudan to Uganda.
Atuhirwe also says probably mutation, where genes responsible for making a brown skin change to black, had a hand in this. Although most of the research in the park has focused on large mammals, it not possible that since colonial times, researchers had not encountered black kobs.
Thus, resolving this mystery lies in the hands of veterinarians and biologists working at the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA).
“It is necessary to study samples of blood from the brown kobs and black kobs to come to a logical and satisfying conclusion.
At the moment, it is difficult to account for the origin of these kobs,” Atuheirwe says.
Seeing them is a rare encounter for tourists who stop to capture the moment by taking photographs.
Found about 50km from Paara Safari Lodge towards Wancha gate, these male kobs have not been observed mating with the brown species.
“Despite the fact that they associate and feed with the brown ones, they have not been sighted mating,” says Atuhirwe.
Sam Mwandha, the acting executive director of UWA, says, other than the brown ones, some kobs are grey, tending towards white. This has prompted a suggestion that they could be breeding with their close relatives since they are confined to the parks and no longer migrate to other areas.
But this was dispelled by Mwandha, who says Murchison is too big to be affected in the short run. “In the long term, this will be an issue and it will be necessary to translocate (move animals) from other parks and create a mix,” says Mwandha.
Previously, animals moved freely through animal corridors linking southern Sudan along the Nile down to Murchison park.
They also moved down to Queen Elizabeth National Park through Bunyoro and then to Tanzania and DR Congo. But population pressure and development have affected animal corridor routes. In some areas like Amuru where animals persist and go through the corridors, they become vulnerable to attack from other species.
“There are differences (albinos) even among human beings. This too is happening with animals at Murchison Falls National Park,” Mwandha says.
Asked whether they were studying the cause of this emerging trend, Mwandha says there are more urgent issues like encroachment on protected areas and diseases that need more attention than this phenomenon.
Although Mwandha and his team seem to put a lot of emphasis on protecting species, it is a big shortcoming to ignore the genetic make up of the animals. Fewer genes mean inbreeding and in case of a disease outbreak, the entire animal population may be easily swept away.
UWA also needs to think beyond the protected areas because some of them were gazetted by colonialists who did not know that animals spend more time outside the park than inside it. They have to protect ecological systems connected to the park such as the corridors through which animals pass during seasonal migrations.
Community to open corridors
Stonewall Kato, the head of Green Dwellings, a community-based organisation, has started engaging land owners outside Murchison in Amuru district to secure the migratory corridor to southern Sudan.
“If the corridor is restored, it will help to avoid inbreeding and also spread benefits. We want to help these communities so that they can benefit from wildlife enterprises such as eco-lodges,” he says.
A former employee of the wildlife authority, Kato says securing the land, which is approximately 200km between rivers Achwa and Omere, will be the beginning of the opening of the wildlife corridor.
He says many land owners in this area do not have the capacity to develop it.
At the same time, they are suspicious of the intentions of outsiders. However, UWA Green Dwellings is making an effort to talk to them and build their trust.
However, Kato’s work needs to be complemented by studies on what is happening to the genetics of the animals in the protected areas.
Observations of the black kobs could be an early warning signal that should not be ignored by Mwandha and his team. They should investigate and help the wildlife authority to make informed decisions.