OK, so the common eland (Taurotragus oryx) is just an antelope. But it’s a biggie. With bulls standing some 1.6m at the shoulder and weighing up to 900kg, this heavyweight herbivore rivals the buffalo as the largest African member of the Bovidae family. And, from a distance, that solid, square frame appears undeniably cow-like.
Raise your binoculars, however, and you’ll see those tell-tale horns. And indeed, this antelope can do things no self-respecting cow would ever attempt: like leaping clear over a 2m fence.
Binoculars come in particularly important with eland. This is a shy animal that tends to give people a wide berth and thus, although it is widespread across much of sub-Saharan Africa, sightings are always something special.
The timidity may come down to size: being the slowest of the antelope and unable to accelerate as readily as smaller species, an eland starts beating its retreat early. Certainly, many of my own views have been of retreating rear ends at an ever-increasing distance. But perhaps that’s just me.
A closer view, if you’re lucky, allows you to make out the eland’s distinctive features: a tousled forelock; a crest along the spine; and, in bulls, an angular dewlap that projects like a sail from the throat. The straight horns have a slight spiral – a little like those of a bushbuck – and are longer and thinner in females. The pale fawn coat has a variable number of fine white stripes and becomes plainer and greyer with age, especially in males.
At close quarters, you might also notice the eland’s other peculiarity: a distinctive clicking noise it makes while walking. This is thought to be caused by the two halves of the splayed hoof coming together each time it raises its foot. Hearing this bizarre sound approaching through darkness at a moonlit Namibian waterhole, I was once reminded of the sinister tapping of Blind Pew’s stick in Treasure Island.
High-jumps and horns may be impressive but are not always enough to save the eland from predators, of which lion are the most significant. In former times, eland were also an important prey item for hunger-gatherer peoples, their totemic cultural significance still evident from their numerous depictions in the rock art of southern Africa.
Eland are both browsers and grazers, according to season, and produce a single calf after a nine-month gestation. They are naturally nomadic, roaming widely in search of food and water, and may form herds hundreds strong.
Today, numbers are declining, with a total population estimated at fewer than 140,000. Top spots include the Serengeti, the Kalahari and – at a higher altitude – Malawi’s Nyika plateau. However, re-introduced populations also thrive in many small reserves and game farms, especially in South Africa.
Despite its natural shyness, the eland has been successfully domesticated for meat and milk production in both South Africa and Russia. As livestock, it has many natural advantages over cattle, being largely resistant to both drought and tsetse flies, and grazing in a less destructive way. Indeed, some conservationists have suggested that Africa’s environment may have fared much better had the first pastoralists settled on the eland rather than the cow as their herd animal of choice. Perhaps they just couldn’t build high enough fences.
To get the best out of your wildlife or safari experience, Travel Africa encourages the use of a good quality binocular. To further enhance the experience and capture great memories, take an iPhone adapter to connect your iPhone to your binocular.
This column is sponsored by Swarovski Optik, the premier range of optics for wildlife in glorious close-up. To see their full range visit www.swarovskioptik.com
Mike Unwin is an award-winning travel writer and author who has an insatiable fascination with wildlife and animal behaviour.