There was something odd about the bushbuck, the scientists finally decided.
They’d been watching the small antelope in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park in the Great Rift Valley for years, and they’d noticed more and more of the normally cautious, wood-dwelling creatures brazenly grazing on the plains, where they would be easy prey. They were seeking out the lush food that grows in sunny, open places; they were fearless. And they had reason to be, says Justine Atkins, a graduate student at Princeton University who studies antelope at Gorongosa, because almost every predator in the national park had been dead for more than a decade.
In a new paper in Science, Atkins and her collaborators show that there is now a population of bushbuck in Gorongosa that prefer to graze in the open, that their numbers have been increasing, and that they are, by and large, better fed than their woodland brethren. But on some level, they still possess that age-old fear. When scientists released the scent of a lion on the wind or played the growl of a leopard, the bushbuck headed for the trees.
Mozambique’s years of civil war, which ended in 1992, wiped out every predator from the national park except for a small handful of lions. Hungry soldiers and desperate civilians killed most of the herbivores as well, though with more than a decade of restoration work, some have slowly begun to recover. Still, with a radically changed ecosystem may come radically changed behavior.