Opinion: The devil’s in the subspecies

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Three safari-goers – one in Kenya, one in South Africa and one in Namibia – all manage to spot a giraffe, a zebra and a cheetah on their game drives.

Both the reticulated and Masai giraffe call Kenya home. Depending on where the tourist is, they could have seen a Grevy’s zebra, maneless zebra or a Grant’s zebra. The Sudan cheetah is the subspecies of cheetah commonly found in East Africa.

Meanwhile, Namibia is the native range of the Angolan giraffe (a subspecies of the southern giraffe),
and Hartmann’s mountain zebra. Both the Southern African cheetah and the Chapman’s zebra occur in South Africa and Namibia. In addition to the Chapman’s zebra, the South African tourist might also be able to see a Cape mountain zebra, Hartmann’s mountain zebra in the Northern Cape and Burchell’s zebra.
The devil is certainly in the detail. It’s not just a giraffe, just a cheetah or just a zebra.Most wildlife species are vulnerable, but some more so than others.

While populations of Masai giraffe and Southern African giraffe species are estimated at 32 500 and 52 050
respectively, there are only 5 195 northern giraffe, and of that 550 are the West African giraffe subspecies.
Something similar can be said for the four gorilla subspecies that are listed as critically endangered. While
populations of western lowland gorillas and Grauer’s gorillas are significantly higher, populations of mountain gorillas are listed at 1 000, and the Cross River gorilla is placed at 250–300 animals.

Then there is the ‘splitters and lumpers’ debate. Lumpers view subspecies as a Latin contamination,
while splitters want populations divided to the last gene sequence. It’s quite a war out there under
the microscope.

The splitters/lumpers debate makes subspecies very hard to manage. In modern day conservation, wildlife
is translocated between reserves and across borders. It was this lack of understanding that resulted in Hartmann’s mountain zebra being relocated into Cape mountain zebra habitat.

Most subspecies are recognisable by subtle differences like markings or horn size, for example the four
subspecies of sable antelope. The South African game breeding industry often crosses subspecies with larger horns and bodies, but are these animals of conservation value?

With other subspecies it is nearly impossible to tell them apart without a dental record or DNA test. There are almost no physiological differences between the four subspecies of chimpanzees – the western chimpanzee, the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, the central chimpanzee, and the eastern chimpanzee.

Next time you find yourself on safari, ask for the full name – the animal could be rarer than you think

Written by: Georgina Lockwood

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