The Sitatunga: Elusive and Amazing

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A sitatunga gives Jonnie a curious look.

I hopped out of the feed truck and hauled a 40-pound bag of grain over to the shallow feeder where several antelope waited patiently. I dumped the entire contents of the bag into the feeder for my audience and returned to the truck for a paper bag filled with small, red folivore, or leaf-eater, biscuits. The crinkly sound from rummaging through this paper bag is an audio cue to most of the hoofed animals in the field exhibits at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. In response to this distinct sound, rounded ears perked up and necks stretched out toward me in anticipation. I threw a few biscuits on the ground and watched as animals trustfully crept closer, no longer so concerned about my presence because they had just scored some treats!

Jonnie’s special friend, Munchkin.

I knelt down near the feeder waiting for my favorite little antelope, a sitatunga, to approach me. Her identification number is 183, complete with a red ear tag, but I call her Munchkin. She has always been very curious and even cautiously approaches us, which is somewhat uncharacteristic for prey animals. I picked up on her curiosity, and it didn’t take long for us to become friends.

Sitatungas have a swamp-dwelling, orange-brown skulking body with a sweet face but extremely sharp hooves designed for treading a muddy habitat. I had made an effort to give my new friend some attention each time I worked in the Safari Park’s East Africa exhibit. Gradually, she became more trusting and would almost always reliably come near the truck during feeding time. After some time, the rest of the herd followed her lead. She’s less than two years old and quite petite, so it’s funny to think that she is kind of the ringleader of this group!

The dependence of these animals on swampy territories in the wild, throughout the West African rain forest and wet areas of the southern savanna, makes them really hard to find. They can even submerge themselves all the way up to their nostrils and wade through the swamp. It is much easier to make sure all of our animals are accounted for and give them a quick glance to make sure they are in good health when they come closer to the truck. I love that the Safari Park’s exhibits allow animals to behave as they would in their natural environment, but it is especially cool to get this response from an animal that is incredibly elusive in the wild and naturally shies away from humans.

The Safari Park keepers have gained the sitatunga herd’s trust.

Caring for these animals can be a challenge, but our sitatunga herd has acclimated to the Park’s routines. Just last week, we were conducting a routine procedure on one of the females. Generally, the veterinary staff immobilizes an animal in the field to trim overgrown hooves, conduct necessary routine medical needs, such as collecting a blood sample, and then wake it up in the safety of a recovery pen. During this particular procedure, the first dart of immobilization agents did not discharge correctly, and the vet needed to follow up with another dart. Well, for a flighty animal, this would be the cue of “Hey, antelope, you just got a freebie. Get outta here!” But our sitatungas, so calm and uncharacteristically unaffected by all this commotion, simply stayed down in their swampy hangout, making it easier for the veterinary staff to try again.

We spread out on foot, keeping the target animal calm, yet corralled by a wall of people while the veterinarian re-loaded. The rest of the herd just milled around, creeping through the swampy ground as if it was no big deal that 10 people were on foot in their territory. Seriously? This scene was completely out of the ordinary, and they disregarded it as if they were too busy to notice. I am always amazed when we use words like “flighty” and “elusive” to describe them, and then we do something so different in their environment and it almost goes unnoticed. Sometimes I don’t think we give them enough credit for how tough and comfortable with their surroundings they really are. Anyway, the sitatunga was successfully darted, and the veterinary staff went about the procedure quickly and expertly. I love the reminder that our animals are unpredictable, and every day brings new and interesting activities.

We have a small herd of sitatungas in the East Africa exhibit and another pair in the Park’s Nairobi Village. Strangely enough, for shy, flighty animals, both of these groups are pretty friendly toward people and can be viewed during a Caravan Safari or on a Behind-the-Scenes Safari. The next time you visit the Park, see if you can spot the sitatungas in East Africa, creeping around through the marshy swamp.

Jonnie Capiro is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Where Are Those Rhinos?

Follow Jonnie’s tweets from the Safari Park’s field exhibit on the Safari Park’s Twitter!