Blue Duikers Come to America

Charles Fergus
June 01, 1988

From November 1981 to March 1982, Robert Cowan was confined to the Namib Desert on the Skeleton Coast of Africa. For 115 days he slept in a rusting trailer parked under a 30-by-40-foot open-sided shed. By day the sun made the air above the sand shimmer. Under the shed, the sea breeze kept it cool enough for a sweatshirt.

In the shade, Cowan built a wooden table on which he arranged 24 tea boxes. The boxes were 20 by 16 by 24 inches, with "Malawi" and "Malaysia" and "Sri Lanka" stenciled on their sides. Inside each lived a blue duiker—a wiry antelope with a gray-brown coat, inch-long, needle-sharp horns, and round, brown eyes.

Cowan is 61 years old and a professor of animal nutrition at Penn State. Decades earlier, he had realized that his science needed a miniature ruminant for forage digestion trials. The blue duiker, standing 12 inches at the shoulder and weighing nine pounds, seemed ideal.

In a digestion trial, scientists analyze forage samples for their nutrient content. Then they feed measured amounts of the forage to caged ruminants. The animals' feces are collected and analyzed; nutrients no longer present were digested. The higher its digestibility, the better a forage. Digestion trials measure nutrient values of alfalfas, clovers, trefoils, grasses, hays, and even wood pulp and wastes from vegetable processing. Plant breeders use digestion trials to check whether new disease- or insect-resistant varieties remain nutritious.

For a trial with sheep or cows, the standard test ruminants, forage must be grown outdoors in many large batches to smooth out soil variables and damage caused by insects and disease. Since duikers eat only one-twentieth of what sheep eat, their forage can be raised in the laboratory, where soil fertility, moisture, light, and other quality-determining factors can be controlled. Duikers, Cowan reasoned, would cut the cost of digestion trials, while letting scientists fine tune the forage evaluation process.

Cowan went to Africa on sabbatical in 1975. With help from conservation officers in Natal Province, eastern South Africa, he captured 28 blue duikers. Although duikers have a reputation for being skittish and hard to tame, Cowan found that he could pick them up the day after capture, and could even milk lactating females by hand. The animals seemed not to mind living in cages, and several gave birth in captivity. Using alfalfa, Cowan duplicated a forage trial which he had run at home on sheep. The results were nearly identical.

He imported 16 of the animals to the Philadelphia Zoo. But during the next four years, before he could start a breeding program, most of the animals died. Cowan would not give up. He knew that duikers, handled properly, could prosper in captivity. He decided to bring a second group to Penn State, where he felt he could give them better care.

In 1981 and 1982, Cowan visited six countries on three continents, traveled 40,000 miles by air and 20,000 by land, confronted government officials, consulted scientists, dickered with freight agents and animal dealers, lived in hotel rooms, a thatched hut, and a trailer—all to bring 20 blue duikers to the United States.

The thatched hut was on the rim of Oribi Gorge, a game reserve in Natal Province. Cowan stayed there in April and May 1981, while he and Ivor Mathias, senior ranger for the reserve, caught duikers on surrounding farms.

"It was sugar cane country," says Cowan, a solid 6-footer with wavy gray hair, a bronzed face, and bushy, sun-bleached eyebrows. "We would find patches of native bush in gullies and creek bottoms where cane had never been planted. The Natal Parks Board furnished beaters and nets. We draped the nets—confiscated fishing nets—over brush at the ends of the gullies."

Game guards—uniformed black men carrying shotguns and wearing hats with leopard-skin bands—deployed the beaters.

"There were 20 or 30 beaters on a drive, Zulus, dressed in rags and fertilizer sacks and some with almost no clothes at all. Every Zulu has a stick with a big knob on the end, and these fellows went along beating the thornbushes, hollering and chanting. One guy led the chants, and the rest answered with a shout. Some of it, if you translated it, was pretty obscene, they tell me."

Duikers—and other creatures fleeing the ruckus—snared themselves in the net. "We caught monkey and rock dassies and civet cats," says Cowan. "Once, the beaters pushed out a big bushbuck. He hit the net and went on through. That was a good thing. A bushbuck has long, sharp horns, and he's a vicious fighter."

On weekends, Cowan built cages for the duikers. In nearby Durban, a port on the Indian Ocean, he bought used tea boxes for half a rand apiece—50 cents. He knocked out the ends and added chicken wire and sliding doors. "Duikers like to be hidden," he says, "and they settled right into the boxes."

Before a hoofed animal can be imported from Africa, it must be isolated for 60 days while blood is drawn, sent to the United States, and examined for disease. The U.S. Department of Agriculture enforces the quarantine.

In the 1970s, when Cowan imported his first duikers, the animals were held in a USDA-approved station in Naples, Italy. Cowan arranged to quarantine this second group in the same station, and had a permit to do so. But in June, just before he was to send the duikers, the Italians revoked the permit. Two months later, they said they would not accept animals from South Africa without papers certifying new conditions—papers which the chief veterinarian of South Africa, Dr. Dent, refused to send.

With Naples out, Cowan contacted a USDA-approved station in Mombasa, Kenya. The Kenyan government barred shipment for political reasons. Germany said it would take the animals and then reversed its decision. Nearby Namibia had the only other USDA-approved station in Africa, but owner Uwe Schultz would not open it for such a small group of animals.

Days dragged into weeks, and Cowan had to leave Oribi Gorge. He decided to move the duikers 250 miles to East London, and hold them in the same zoo where he had run the forage evaluations in 1975.

Immediately he ran into more politics. Between Oribi Gorge and East London lies the Republic of Transkei, a Bantu Homeland set up by the South African government as an independent state. While Cowan might drive across the Transkei, he was forbidden to truck animals through it. On August 27, Cowan loaded the duikers into shipping crates. While the animals were flown from Durban to East London, he trucked the tea boxes (needed to house the duikers at the zoo) across the Transkei.

In East London, Cowan taught a caretaker to look after the duikers. His final option, as he saw it, was to quarantine the animals himself in South Africa. Seeking approval, he flew to Pretoria and met with Dr. Dent.

Before the chief veterinarian would approve a quarantine, he wanted the USDA document spelling out its requirements for a quarantine station. Cowan telephoned Paul Wangsness, head of Penn State's dairy and animal science department; a few days later, Wangsness received the document from the USDA and telexed it, word for word, to South Africa.

"The telex was 6 feet long," says Cowan. "It mandated a multimillion-dollar building with dipping vats, crack-proof concrete floor, foot baths, showers—you name it. There was no such facility in South Africa. I didn't know it at the time, but the USDA had sent the wrong document. It described a quarantine station for domestic animals."

His project in limbo, Cowan headed back to America. His flight had a stopover in Frankfurt, and on the chance that he might get the duikers into Germany later, he crossed the border into Holland to meet with Franz van den Brink, who operated a USDA-approved quarantine station in Bremen, Germany. The station turned out to be a rusting barge in the Wesar River, a far cry from the building described in the telex. Confused, Cowan flew home.

In mid-September, back at Penn State, Cowan telephoned Uwe Schultz, who had been out of Namibia for a month. Cowan asked if he could rent space at Schultz's station, live nearby, and tend the duikers himself. Schultz agreed. Later, Schultz telexed and said that the director of veterinary services for Namibia was afraid his station would not meet USDA requirements. He asked Cowan to bring a copy of the USDA document when he returned to Africa.

"I called the USDA, and they sent the paper," says Cowan. "It arrived the day before I left for Johannesburg. And it was no more like that 6-foot telex than the man in the moon—it described a much simpler facility, just a place to isolate animals."

Cowan flew to Johannesburg, and then to Windhoek, capital of Namibia. Schultz met him at the airport. The bearded German drove them 300 miles to his quarantine station near Walvis Bay, a port city on the Atlantic along a section of coast known for wrecks and drownings—the Skeleton Coast.

"It was a whale of a hot trip through the desert," says Cowan. "We got to Walvis Bay in the middle of a sandstorm. Schultz's station was a tumbledown collection of pen and stalls and corrals. I was scared; I got out the USDA document and read it again. The station seemed to comply. But I knew I couldn't turn the duikers loose in those pens—I'd need my tea boxes again."

Cowan canceled plans to fly the animals from East London, and instead hired a driver with a half-ton Mazda pickup truck and a motorcycle trailer. They would cross South Africa, fetch the duikers and the tea boxes, and haul them back to Walvis Bay.

"The driver was an Afrikaaner named Johann van der Westerhuizen. We drove south to Keetmanshoop and crossed the Karas Mountains. On the veld we saw ostriches and springbok and steenbok, a nice little antelope maybe three times the size of a blue duiker. The roads were good, but a few years ago that same trip would have worn out a car."

At East London, Cowan was reunited with the duikers. An old female had died, but three others had borne young, increasing the herd to 24. Cowan coaxed the duikers into their travel crates, loaded them in the bed of the Mazda, and secured the tea boxes to the motorcycle trailer. He and van der Westerhuizen drove straight back to Walvis Bay, crossing the desert at night to spare the animals.

At the quarantine station, Cowan set the boxes under the shed. With cast-off fishnet from the Walvis Bay docks, he screened in the sides and walled off an exercise area on the sand floor. A veterinarian took a blood sample from each animal. The samples were air-freighted to Plum Island Animal Disease Center, a USDA facility in Long Island Sound, to be tested for rinderpest and foot-and-mouth disease.

Cowan believed he would be in Walvis Bay for 60 days; by then, the duikers would have cleared quarantine, and he could fly them back to the United States. He set up housekeeping in a rented "caravan"—the South African name for a trailer—under the shed.

"The country was pure desert," says Cowan. "Right in front of the station was Dune Seven, the seventh largest dune in the world. It stood about 300 feet tall, the last in a row of dunes that rippled off as far as you could see." Two or three times a week, a sandstorm blew up. "Sand got in everything—your hair, food, bedding, clothes. It was tiny flakes of mica, more like dust than sand. The flakes shone like diamonds on your skin."

Cowan fed and watered the duikers, cleaned their cages, and turned them loose for exercise. Every few days, he drove a rented truck into Walvis Bay to buy food and water. In town he saw Japanese sailors off fishing boats, children in school uniforms, and native Herero women wearing bright, flowing skirts and turbans with curved horns.

On the 23rd of December, 27 days into the quarantine, word came from Plum Island that two tests had been positive.

"I was stunned," Cowan says. "The tests showed two duikers carrying rinderpest, a disease South Africans say was wiped out in 1904. One of the animals was a young female not yet weaned from her mother; she tested positive and the mother negative. The other was an old male. I had to remove both animals, scrub out all the tea boxes and cover the floor with fresh sand, arrange new blood tests, and start a second quarantine."

The solitude began to grind. Cowan listened on a shortwave radio to the Voice of America, picking up the broadcast for an hour every morning. He read books. He wrote letters. He climbed Dune Seven. And he planned the final moves that would take his duikers to the United States.

"When things got really bad," he says, "I'd go out and work with the animals. I'd turn them loose and watch them play. They raced and played tag and kicked sand all over the place. Some would come up and want to be petted.

"They're used to a humid climate, but they did fine in the desert. They're tough little animals. They'll take a lot of punishment before they give in."

On March 1, Plum Island telexed. All tests were negative. The duikers could come to the United States.

Cowan now had 20 of the antelopes, two males having died of ruptured bladders. He had been dealing with Walvis Bay shipping agents to air-freight the animals to Johannesburg, but the best price he could get for this first leg of the journey home was twice as much as the flight to New York.

Then a USDA veterinarian arrived to escort the duikers home, a quarantine rule that cost Cowan $3,000. With time growing short, Cowan got a break: a friend in Walvis Bay wangled him free space on a South African Army C-130 cargo plane.

The airplane took off from Walvis Bay Military Airport, the duikers in their travel crates surrounded by truck tires, bicycles, and suitcases. Cowan and the USDA veterinarian crowded in with soldiers and families being transferred to other bases. When they touched down in Johannesburg, the USDA vet watched as the duikers were transferred to a South African Airways Boeing 747.

Eighteen hours later, the 747 landed at John F. Kennedy Airport. After the animals cleared customs, a waiting van trucked them up the Hudson to Newburgh, N.Y., where they entered another quarantine. On April 12, Cowan picked up his duikers and drove them to Penn State.

Now the duikers step about their cages, white tails flicking, pointed muzzles sniffing the air. Cowan reaches into a cage. His big fingers wiggle. A duiker walks over, and he rubs the fur at the base of its horns.

The 18 duikers—two of the animals died during quarantine in New York—live at Penn State's deer research facility, which Cowan directs. The facility, popularly known as the deer pens, has received USDA designation as a "zoological park," where the animals live in a special building under permanent quarantine. Sightseers can watch the duikers through a window. Scientists and handlers wade through footpaths to enter, to keep from infecting the animals with North American pathogens.

From this breeding nucleus, Cowan hopes to rear duikers for forage digestion trials. He may not run any of the trials himself, since he plans to retire within the year. He had intended to leave at the end of March, but there is still much to do.

Cowan speaks softly to the duiker. Its ears twitch. He scratches its back, its shoulders, its chin.

"At a certain point—I guess it was at the Oribi Gorge—I realized there was no turning back," he says. "I had taken the duikers out of the bush. I had to get them home. As long as they were alive, I'd never give up."

Last Updated June 01, 1988