Peter Flack | Hunter, Writer, Conservationist, Retired Game Rancher

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February 2011 | Published by African Indaba

The Taxonomy of African Game Animals by Peter Flack

There are no rules, or so it may appear. That's right, when it comes to establishing whether an animal is a new species or subspecies, there are no comprehensive, hard and fast laws, rules or regulations. Cutting through all the "who ha", if enough people, of whatever persuasion, say it is a new species or subspecies, then it is. For example, an American hunting organization has recently decided that bongo in parts of West Africa are a new subspecies, different to those in both Central and East Africa. Just like that and despite the fact that only these latter two subspecies have been recognized as such for scores of years.

At the other end of the spectrum, I recently read an article in The Journal of Mammalogy by four scientists arguing for the recognition of a new species of elephant shrew. Their arguments were based on an analysis of both mitochondrial and nuclear DNA sequences, comparative cytogenic (chromosome) data and morphological (physical, visible or measurable) differences as well. This allowed them to produce an identification scheme which showed how to distinguish the new species from the existing ones and also established the geographic limits of the new species.

According to Professor Terry Robinson of Stellenbosch University, who has patiently tried to initiate me into some of the intricacies and niceties of genetics, "There are two broad schools of thought when it comes to making these determinations - the school which bases its findings on empirical data that includes physical, dental, chromosomal and DNA analysis and THOSE THAT DO NOT!" In other words, there is only one way he and other serious scientists approach the matter and they are not particularly interested in anyone who doesn't follow this basis for establishing new species and subspecies.

Then there is Gerhard Damm who has spent the last four years working on the Caprinae Atlas which will shortly be published. This monumental piece of work seeks to define and describe all sheep and goat species worldwide. He has this to say, "Taxonomy is not mathematics, and different scientists have come to different interpretations without conclusively being able to prove that those of differing opinion are wrong. The Caprinae taxonomy is a case in point. Many of our learned friends and colleagues in the Caprinae Specialist Group have strong and opinionated viewpoints - we certainly do not want to claim that we have suddenly found the expertise to elevate one over the rest."

Damm therefore argues for a more collaborative approach involving both scientists and others. He writes, "cooperative efforts between biologists and scientists of the range states, hunting outfitters, guides, hunters, local rural populations and international organizations are, however, essential to maintain high quality information and a database, complimentary to, but essential for, furthering our taxonomic understanding."

The reasons for this go to the very heart of the conservation of those selfsame species and subspecies. He adds, "The sustainable use option, the economic value and, consequently, the conservation initiatives for the different Caprinae phenotypes (a phenotype is geographically and/or measurably distinct), will most likely improve if well regulated and internationally accepted hunting tourism programs are built around unique phenotypes. Otherwise, why should an international hunter be interested to hunt the probably smaller rams in Kyrgyzstan, if one could have a chance at a large ram in Tajikistan? Why should anybody be interested in hunting and conserving the Balkan chamois - especially in view of the hundreds of thousands chamois throughout their range - if one could easily obtain an Alpine chamois in Austria. Last not least - why should a hunter pay significantly more for a Khangai argali hunt than for a Gobi argali hunt - if it were not for the recognition of the particular phenotype."

When it comes to the approach described by Professor Robinson, there are two ways of determining DNA - using mitochondrial DNA analysis, which basically tells you who the mother of the animal was, and nuclear DNA analysis, which basically tells you who the father was. The latter is a much more expensive and time consuming analysis and, therefore, is used less often. However, to be sure of the parentage of the animal, both tests need to be done. What is more, there needs to be an adequate data base comprising information on animals from different locations throughout the species' range in order to make a valid and persuasive case as to whether the animal is an existing or new species or subspecies.

For example, when he and Professor Van Vuuren, also of Stellenbosch University, were attempting to establish the degree of similarity between royal or giant sable from Angola and sable from neighboring Western Zambia which manifested similar facial markings -they are distinct by the way - they tested over 170 DNA samples of these animals. On the other hand, when I asked them to test DNA samples from situtunga from Western Zambia which, from a visual perspective, looked like forest situtunga, they could come to no definitive conclusion as there is not a sufficiently comprehensive data base available against which to compare the samples Chris Kinsey, Craig Boddington and I provided.

Of course, as I wrote at the outset, you can disregard this scientific way of classifying animals or the approach called for by Gerhard Damm and, like the American hunting organization I mentioned, simply make a claim that there is a new species or sub-species in the popular press and, unfortunately, if a lot of people, particularly those who have access to publications, agree, then as has happened in the past, animals may become popularly viewed as a new species or subspecies regardless whether this is actually the case or not. Sounds hard to believe I know but there it is.

Over the last four years, Rowland Wards Records of Big Game has embarked on one of the most extensive reevaluations of species and sub-species of game animals recorded in the 119 year history of The Book. For my sins, and as one of the minority shareholders and an ex director of the company, I have been involved in Volume One, the African section of The Book and, along with my colleagues, have looked at each aspect of its contents de novo - from measuring systems to minimums, from descriptions of species and sub-species to their distribution.

We have examined research and literature published over the last few years, consulted experienced people and debated and argued at length until we have eventually reached consensus. One of the more vigorous debates was over a paper published in 2007 about bushbuck which, based on 485 mitochondrial DNA samples, sought to reclassify bushbuck throughout the whole of Africa into two species - Tragelaphus scriptus and Tragelaphus sylvaticus and these into a further 23 subspecies. The fact that many of these supposed subspecies cannot be visually distinguished from one another and the boundaries between supposed subspecies are often uncertain unfortunately creates difficulties for us hunters and raises the very issues mentioned by Damm.

My concern is that this bushbuck paper, and others like it, may lead to all kinds of, let us call them "misunderstandings" among the hunting fraternity. And it is not as if we do not have enough of them as it is. We know that many species of African game animals change along a geographic cline that starts in the south west of Africa and moves north westward into East Africa and Ethiopia before bending around the rain forests into West Africa. Often where one subspecies ends and another begins is unclear. For example, although on the western bank of the Ruvuma River (which forms the border between Mozambique and Tanzania), the eland are classified taxonomically as Livingstone's and on the eastern bank as Patterson's or East African eland, it is well known that they both look exactly alike and are visually different to the Patterson's eland found further to the north west, for example, in Masailand.

So too, where exactly do Central African Savannah buffalo end and West African Savannah buffalo begin? And where do both varieties end and dwarf forest buffalo begin? Anyone who has hunted the bakos of C.A.R on a regular basis will recall seeing buffalo in glades or openings in the rain forest which are neither one nor the other but no-one has as yet tried to distinguish these "cross-over" buffaloes. At least not taxonomically, although many of us know of such animals that have been entered into record books as if they were dwarf forest buffalo because they are, in general, much bigger than the genuine article.

Although this is a worry to Rowland Ward (as it strives to keep its recordings as accurate as possible, helped in no small way by its small army of well trained and dedicated international measurers and the fact that there are no temptations in the form of prizes or awards to be won for entering an animal in The Book), it is not of major concern to me. Speaking personally, but for the possible "tainting" of the accuracy of The Book's data base, I could not care less if someone, for example, entered a Nile bushbuck as a big harnessed bushbuck. As selfish as it must sound, I hunt for myself and for no-one else. For me and, fortunately, for many, many others, to do such a thing is inconceivable as it amounts to cheating yourself, which makes no sense at all.

Having said this, if the classification scheme set out in the 2007 publication on bushbuck were to be adopted by hunting record books, it would be difficult for hunters - the people who record 99,99% of all African game species - to know exactly what animal had been shot or picked up. It would also allow the unscrupulous to enter an animal from one area as if it had come from another area where there are little or no physical differences between the subspecies. I fear, however, that I am fighting an uphill battle in this regard as another record book has, on a number of occasions, created new subspecies based entirely on size. I suspect that this owes more to commercial exploitation than anything else. After all, the greater the number of species and subspecies, the more the number of entries, the larger the revenue for the hunting organization. But then again I suppose I could be wrong.

Just as South African lions have been removed from Rowland Wards Records of Big Game because measurers could no longer be sure whether they were "canned" or not, if measurers also become unable to tell, without expensive and time consuming DNA analysis, where an animal comes from, or what it is from photographic evidence, such "doubtful" or "tainted" animals also risk being removed from The Book or not being entered at all. For hunters like me who believe that Rowland Ward stands for all that is good, decent and authentic in this threatened hunting world of ours, then to all intents and purposes, such specimens cease to have any attraction as a huntable game species. For example, I am no more interested in hunting a lion in South Africa than in trying to fly to the moon. Of course, by this I do not mean to be prescriptive. If you want to measure your own trophies, kill them in cages, decide for yourself what they are, enter them into a book and pay for the privilege, be my guest. But is it really hunting? And what purpose does such a record book serve?

Quite honestly, where you combine this with the creation of new categories of animal species or subspecies based on little or no comprehensive or empirically established scientific evidence - such as the new bongo species recognized by the American hunting organization - I believe you may be creating a very unfortunate and slippery slope. And when this is compounded by giving people awards for the various entries they make, it simply makes a mockery of a sport that we feel so passionately about.

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