A Thought: Forgotten Gazelles of Europe?

Just a thought…

Whenever I hear any reference to those graceful, nimble and fleet-footed group of antelopes known as the gazelles, my thoughts are automatically drawn to the African savannas and deserts.  The name Springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis), that iconic species of gazelle that serves as the national emblem of the South African rugby team, instantly incite thoughts of the vastness of the Karoo and Kalahari of southern Africa.  The name Thomson’s gazelle (Gazella thomsonii) immediately draws my attention to the endless expanses of grass that comprise the plains of the Masai Mara and Serengeti where they, along with wildebeest and zebra, follow the ebb and flow of the seasons.

But what of the name Bourbon’s gazelle (Gazella borbonica), or European gazelle?  Does it ring a bell?  Does it incite any familiar thoughts of wilderness?

Mountain gazelle in the Negev of Israel (Gazella gazella), a closely related species to the extinct Bourbon’s gazelle.


For most the name would be utterly unknown!  The reason being that this species went extinct, along with a myriad of other large herbivores and carnivores, throughout Europe during the Pleistocene (possibly Holocene).  Before the rise of “civilisation” the Bourbon’s gazelle enjoyed a vast range throughout southern Europe along the Mediterranean coast from Portugal in the west, through Spain, France, Italy and into the Balkans, Greece, Turkey and the Levant.  Throughout this wide range these European gazelles roamed alongside red deer (Cervus elaphus), fallow deer (Dama dama) and mouflon (Ovis orientalis) across various habitats from Mediterranean scrub and pine and oak woodlands to mountainous terrain.

So how did these beautiful creatures meet their end?  Well as the Holocene era dawned across southern Europe man increasingly laid claim on the hunting and feeding grounds of the native predators and prey.  European lions (Panthera leo), leopards (Panthera pardus), cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), wolves (Canis lupus) and even Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus), along with most of their prey species, slowly faded from the landscape and from the memory of rising empires!  So it may well be concluded that these animals disappeared from the European landscape as a direct result of human devise.  Although climate may have contributed, it was by no means the determining factor!

Over time the loss of such species from the European environment gradually led to the demise of many other species as entire ecosystems collapsed and became very much altered and depleted of biodiversity.  So in order to restore the ancient and authentic environments of Europe, may we now consider the reintroduction of lost herbivores that originally helped to shape these environments.  But now a second question remains, how do we reintroduce a species that as been lost into the deep abyss of extinction?  The answer is: Not all has been lost!  For although the Bourbon’s gazelle disappeared from Europe, it’s close relatives have managed to survive, albeit just, in small enclaves of suitable habitat along the Mediterranean coast in northern Africa and the Middle East.  One such species (which may well have been part of a superspecies with Bourbon’s gazelle) is the mountain gazelle (Gazella gazella) that survives in remnant populations in Israel and Turkey, while the second species is the Cuvier’s gazelle (Gazella cuvieri) that survived in small mountainous enclaves in Morocco.  These two gazelle species still inhabit environments that are extremely similar to those found in the Mediterranean countries of Europe.

So hear is the question: Should we again restored these highly endangered gazelle species into suitable habitat along Europe’s Mediterranean coast?

Please feel free to comment your opinion!

Marcel van der Merwe II

Cape Town | South Africa

Cuvier’s gazelle in breeding program in southern Spain (Gazella cuvieri), a closely related species to the extinct Bourbon’s gazelle.



8 thoughts on “A Thought: Forgotten Gazelles of Europe?

  1. We first need a critical review of the evidence before a yes or no can be made. This includes scientific evidence of presence/distribution that we need to make a case. An extensive literature review is needed for this published in peer reviewed journals preferably

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Are you sure about the distribution of Gazella gazella and Gazella cuvieri? I checked the IUCN website, and both species seem associated to deserts and semi-deserts, mostly outside of the Mediterranean ecoregion.


    1. Indeed, a tiny population comprising a unique subspesies of Gazella gazella still occurs within the confines of a Wild Olive grove in Jerusalem. Formerly this subspecies was widespread across the Mediterranean ecoregion of Israel, Lebanon, and Turkey.

      Gazella cuvieri, on the other hand, still occurs in dense Mediterranean thicket in and around the Atlas Mountains. They were a widespread species along the Mediterranean ecoregion in North Africa north of the Atlas.

      So both species have a firm history of occurrence in Mediterranean habitats – occuring in Macchia shrublands, oak woodlands, and even in some pine forests.

      The current occurrence of both G. gazella and G. cuvieri in desert and semi-desert merrly represents the surviving remnants of once widespread populations.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The other crucial question other than proving that the species should be where is mentioned in the article is what environment is needed to support it and where this exists if at all. This includes a place where interaction with people can be at an equilibrium


    1. Very true, Theodore! On an ecological basis both G. gazella and G. cuvieri would thrive throughout the Iberian Peninsula south of the Pyrenees. Large areas of Italy and Greece also contain suitable habitat for these two gazelle species.

      Of the ecologically suitable countries, Spain probably has the best locations for reintroduction (and this probably only in large fenced in reserves).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. When can you start? this is a great ide.!
    Antelopes like gazelles has a long and old history in Europe.
    Antelopes and other bovides was a commen find in Samos and Pikermi of turolian age. They are in fact laurasiatheria.

    Altamira shows a variety of antelopes (seems to be middle east/ north african stock) probably following the steps and savannas into Europe.
    This cave paintings are only 35 000 years old, how many glacial periodes had they survived before getting to know humans in there last refuges.!
    Gazella Borbonica is extinct, but relatives of the species still trive in mostly the same plant and climatic zones as Altamiras antelopes did.
    So why not help them return?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Frøydis Fjell,

      We will start with such a rewilding project in Spain within the next 5 years. Currently working on the conceptualization and funding. Spain has great potential for rewilding.

      Thank you for your great remarks.

      Marcel van der Merwe II

      Liked by 1 person

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