Ivory Coast

The lone Senegal kob with the torn right ear jerked his head up at the familiar sound of the Land Rover's approach. The curved sweep of his black-ringed horns and the smooth lines of his orange-red coat formed a sharp, regal relief against a backdrop of lush plains grass.

"This is Ear Rip," said Jonathan H. Gilbert as he slowly downshifted, braking the Land Rover to a smooth stop.

"I have given names to the kobs I can recognize through their natural markings or other marks," he added as he smiled under his broad-rim peasant straw hat.

Ear Rip, Gilbert continued, lost his patch of territory in November to another male Senegal Kob who beat him in an all-day, horn-to-horn battle. But after spending several months with a bachelor herd, Ear Rip returned for a rematch in March and retook his turf in a second equally gruelling fight.

As an adult male without his own defined territory, Ear Rip would have been reduced to a life of celibacy with the landless bachelor herd of juvenile Senegal kobs. The small herds of female Senegal kobs are attracted only to males who hold their own grassy, well-watered territories, Gilbert explained.

Gilbert is one of the few naturalists who have closely studied the mating and other behavorial habits of the Senegal kob. He has done so with an eye toward convincing the Ivory Coast government that this West African antelope, relatively plentiful in Comoe Park, can be raised commerically like cattle as a domestic meat source. A similar use of the eland antelope in East Africa is proving successful, Gilbert said.

The Ivory Coast, one of Africa's rare development success stories, presently produces about 25 percent of its annual domestic meat consumption and has to import the rest at a considerable cost in precious foreign exchange.

"But with fenced-in extensive game range with water, high-protein plains grasses and salt licks," the Ivory Coast could go a long way toward solving its meat deficit problems using the Senegal kob, Gilbert insists.

"The territory of males averages 100 to 150 yards in diameter," continued Gilbert. "The females, who roam in groups of about 11, are attracted to the males whose territories have the best land and water. When they come on his land, the male then does a prancing dance after he finds a receptive female to mate." While willing, the female usually leads the male on a long, teasing chase before the mating occurs, he said.

COMOE PARK'S 3,500 square miles is the largest area of seven national parks in the Ivory Coast and the most developed for tourists. Following its narrow dirt roads, visitors to the park can see a wide variety of African wildlife, including lions, elephants, hippopotamuses, Cape buffalo, crocodiles, wart hogs, several species of monkeys and many types of antelopes.

The terrain varies from the grassland savannas that are more common in East Africa's better known game parks to plains bordered by woodland to thick tropical forests running along the length of both banks of the Comoe River.

While some animals like the Senegal kob have flourished in Comoe Park, others are being reduced gradually to extinction by that ubiquitous plague to all of Africa's natural parks, the game poacher. Poachers are taking elephants, for their tusks, and the few leopards and crocodiles left, for their skins, according to Gilbert and Ivorian forest ranger Koffi N'Dri.

N'Dri said the park has about 70 rangers who seek to stop the poaching but needs about "one thousand to effectively patrol" the park. A five-year West German wildlife project that ended in October established census estimates for some of Comoe's animals in 1978, putting the number of elephants then at 1,500, leopards at no more than 50, lions at 250. It did not count the dwindling number of crocodiles. The large roan antelope, which is a species endangered throughout Africa, is estimated here at 1,700, a relatively large number, and the Senegal kob were estimated to be 50,000 strong in 1978.

During a late night campfire discussion, Gilbert was interrupted several times by the deep, bass roar of lions passing around the southern to the northern edge of the camp.

"They're just letting us know that we're on their turf," said Gilbert nonchalantly. "They come around often," added Gilbert, who stays at the campsite for as long as five weeks at a stretch.

At the first blush of dawn the next day, a troop of the beautiful and also endangered long-haired, black and white colobus monkeys woke the camp with their dog-like barks and coughs from the surrounding trees. They were answered by another troop of colobus in the trees on the river's west bank.

"They only go through that ritual in the morning," said Gilbert. "The rest of the day they don't make any noise at all."

FOR GILBERT, a former Peace Corps volunteer here, the life and potential use of the Senegal kob has become more than a simple study as he has gone for more than a year without a salary and camped out for weeks at a time in Comoe Park to be near his kobs.

During an overnight stay at his camp and a two-day Land Rover tour of the park, Gilbert talked about his hand-to-mouth existence while trying to complete his field study of the handsome kob antelope.

Gilbert has been working in the Comoe since he came to the Ivory Coast as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1978.

Until his Ivorian Peace Corps tour ended in 1980, Gilbert was the manager of the southern half of Comoe Park and worked on the first list of the park's bird species. In March 1981 he began working without salary with the West German project, capturing Senegal kobs to weigh them and put identification collars on them for future research.

The West German government's funding ended last fall, but Gilbert stayed on, using the Germans' donated tents, Land Rover and other equipment to conduct additional research on the kobs. Still without salary, Gilbert has received from the Ivorian government some gasoline for the Land Rover and two forest rangers assigned to help him.

For pocket money, Gilbert has worked for the World Wildlife Fund in delimiting on foot the boundaries of Tai National Park in the southwest part of the country, has given tourists paid guided tours in Comoe Park and has tended bar at the Bonkani Hotel in the small town of Bouna east of Comoe.

Gilbert plans to enter the Wildlife and Fisheries graduate school program at Michigan State University in September, he said.

"After I get my master's degree in wildlife management, I'd like to come back to the Ivory Coast and finish my work with the kob," Gilbert said.--Leon Dash