Some accelerate to unexpected speeds; others survive months without drinking; all are beautiful to watch. From the elusive hirola (pictured above) to ubiquitous impala, we celebrate the continent’s most elegant mammals.
Unbelievable as it may seem, there are around 80 distinct species of antelope in Africa and about the same number again of subspecies. Although often overlooked in favour of the more glamorous ‘Big Five’ on safari-goers’ wish-lists, these sensitive-seeming animals prove irresistibly charming when actually encountered in the wild. Their exquisite horns and markings, alert watchfulness and athletic pronking can be hypnotically beautiful. Short shrift should be given to people who groan when on safari, “not another impala!” On the contrary, even the commonest species of antelope deserve appreciation. The bush would seem desolate without them.
What’s in a name?
The name ‘antelope’ derives from a Greek word meaning “brightness of eye” – a description particularly apt in the case of the enchanting, Bambi-like dwarf gazelles. Today the name applies to hoofed, even-toed, cud-chewing animals with horns that are hollow and never shed (unlike those of deer). The horns are carried by all male antelope and by does in about half the species.
The hoofs of antelope are centrally split, pushed forward to raise the animal onto “tiptoe” and hardened to withstand pounding while running. Proportionately, those of the sitatunga are the longest (up to 18cm), the two halves splaying wide to spread the animal’s weight and enable it to travel over mud and reed beds. Addax also spread hoofs for support on soft desert sands.
A number of antelope species have elongated muzzles, which are an aid in cropping short grass and the leaves of thorny bushes. They and others grip food between the lower cutting teeth and a hard pad in the upper jaw, tear it off, then swallow. Later it is regurgitated from the multi-chambered stomach and thoroughly chewed using a rhythmic sideways motion. This ensures maximum absorption of nutrients locked up in giant cellulose molecules. Deficiencies in essential minerals and salts are overcome by eating soil.
The variety of antelope is impressive: the majestic Giant eland is the largest living species (weighing up to 900kg) and the royal antelope (found in West Africa) the smallest at a mere 2kg.
Many antelope are on the endangered or critical lists, including the hirola (the rarest antelope), the Western hartebeest, Giant sable, addax and Scimitar-horned oryx. All the gazelles, gerenuk, dibatag , Mountain nyala and duikers, which are hunted throughout Africa for bush-meat, are also under threat. Very serious population declines have been noted in all four lechwe species and only rigid protection has saved the bontebok (pictured above) from annihilation.
Grazers and browsers
Some antelope, such as bongo (pictured above) and nyala, browse bushes and trees; others, for example puku and kob, graze the grasslands. There are a few (including impala, steenbok, Cape grysbok and Beisa oryx) who can switch between the two if need be, but most find the chemical and nutritional differences between grasses and broad-leaved plants too great.
The belief that the reactive build-up of tannin in a browsed mopane tree causes a kudu to move on is unfounded, for the toxic process takes too long to have that affect. Gerenuk and dibatag, with their extraordinarily elongated necks and legs, are able to crop at a higher level than most other browsers and are therefore less susceptible to competition for food.
Among the grazers, oryx and addax can go for months without drinking. By lying down or standing in the shade during the day, and by pumping heart-bound blood via an elaborate network of nasal vessels to cool it, gemsbok and Damara dik-dik reduce heat build-up and moisture loss through evaporation. Then, by eating at night after dew has fallen and by digging up roots and tsana melons, they, springbok and steenbok can acquire sufficient moisture to survive in the Kalahari.
Klipspringer, suni, oribi and Grey rhebok can also live without drinking as long as they have greenery to eat. In contrast, sitatunga and puku are heavily dependent on water for both sustenance and safety from predators. Many antelope prefer brackish water as it helps to keep the rumens (the first stomach compartment) functioning.
Making sense of it all
Antelope use all five senses and probably the sixth as well. In touching, for example, courting couples lick and caress, calves butt to stimulate a mother’s milk and she, in turn, nudges her offspring to prompt the excretion of waste.
They also “talk” to each other, as reaction to the explosive snorts of the impala, the piercing whistle of the klipspringer, the echoing bark of the bushbuck and the foot-stomping of the Black wildebeest – all danger signals – will testify. However, why eland click their heels while walking remains a mystery.
It is probably the antelopes’ ability to discriminate between hundreds of different odours, many beyond our nostrils, that is most important. Critical in predator detection, it is also employed in mother-offspring bonding, in locating and selecting food or a mate and in navigating. Bodily odours given off are individual and species-specific, as the distinctive niff of the sable and the lingering goat-like smell of the waterbuck will testify. The scent emitted by the suni is so pungent that it’s sometimes called the “musk antelope”.
All antelopes have scent glands, sometimes several different ones. The Blue duiker has them in front of the eyes, the steenbok tucks them under the chin, the impala hides them under black tufts on the back legs, the sable carries them between his hoofs, the Grey rhebok has them under the tail.
Secretions from these glands are left of the soil when the animal walks, or on vegetation when it deliberately marks its territory boundary. Klipspringer, for example, scent grass and twigs by pushing their pre-orbital (eye) glands over the ends and moving their heads to impart a sticky fluid (pictured above). In each case scent deposits yield information about the antelope – identity, age, sex, social and hormonal status, for example.
Staking a claim
In many antelope species, males lay claim to a demarcated “mating rights” arena. The better the territory’s food resources, the better the attraction to females and, therefore, the greater the coupling opportunities for the holder.
Topi only stake out during the rut, while Blue wildebeest assume temporary residence on a patch when the herd is on the move. Reedbuck, who live in pairs or family groups, claim permanent residence where food is plentiful, but where it is scarce their space is only defended during the mating season. Klipspringers and roan have been known to hold the same area for many years, while eland concern themselves solely with denying others access to their “wives” in oestrus.
Testosterone-charged males may demarcate their mating arena by standing prominently on mounds, horn-scraping the ground, the glandular scenting of bushes and depositing urine and faeces in open middens. Steenbok, however, are unique in that they dig shallow scrapes and lightly cover them after defecating.
A buck advertises his genetic potential by parading his physique (suitably enhanced by erected mane and up-thrust horns), roaring or barking loudly, thrashing bushes and pawing the ground. If successful, he does everything to keep his harem to himself and to butt out other males. Horn-locking confrontations between males (pictured with the oryx above) are short but energy sapping and potentially deadly. Before long, the constant round of self-selling, herding, courting, coupling and chasing off challengers exacts a heavy physical toll. A week or two into mating and most males are drained and unceremoniously displaced by a fresh hunk of masculinity.
The next generation
Roan antelope have no fixed breeding period, but in most other species mating is a matter of making the most of a short-lived seasonal opportunity. The greater the threat of predators, the quicker the coupling. Among springbok and Blue wildebeest, union is just a fleeting moment, often repeated and with several females. Kudu couples, however, will only join when all the conditions are right for conception (a superb male is pictured above).
In most cases nature has determined that birthing occurs when the rains break and nutritious new shoots appear. However, stories that female impala can regulate dropping their young to coincide with the first downpour are largely unfounded.
Antelope births are fairly quick, as the mother is particularly vulnerable. In a wildebeest herd other females will gather round to protect a calving mother. Her newborn is on its feet in minutes and ready to run with the herd an after an impressive quarter of an hour.
In contrast, expectant does in a bonded pair generally deliver under cover and keep the youngsters in hiding for a while. Grey duiker offspring take about half an hour to rise, baby klipspringer require about a month before they can boulder-hop and baby roan have to wait about six weeks before being able to trot alongside their parents. Amazingly, sitatunga young can swim before they can walk properly.
While in hiding, newly born antelope are relatively odourless and can remain motionless for hours between a mother’s visits. Ever-committed, after feeding she will either consume her offspring’s waste matter to keep the site smell-free, or find a new site.
Unsurprisingly, some might say, most males walk away from child-rearing responsibilities. However, duiker, suni, klipspringer and Damara dik-dik rams, having pair-bonded for life, stick around to protect the family and its resources.
One of the herd
Many of the smaller buck lead solitary lives most of the time, but the majority of medium-and larger-sized antelope live in groups of varying size (and sometimes species). Gathering together reduces any one individual’s chances of being caught by a predator. It can also provide better opportunities for feeding, social interaction and finding a mate. Plains game in particular find it advantageous to gather together in large numbers when migrating or when predators abound. On the downside, as competition for food, water and a mate increases, the herd is more conspicuous and diseases can spread quickly.
Six distinct social groups may be seen: an adult male-female couple; a pair or more of adult males; a group of mixed-age bachelors; a nursery of juveniles; a breeding herd of mothers and offspring; and a harem comprising of a male with several wives (impala pictured above).
An acute sense of smell aside, evolution has given antelope very large ears, and eyes on top of the head. They are therefore fairly well equipped to keep an all-round watch for lion, leopard, cheetah, hyena, wild dog and, in the case of the smaller buck, pythons and Crowned eagles. Some species – springbok and impala, for instance – also join up with baboons and other mammals, using accompanying oxpeckers and egrets for additional surveillance.
Methods of avoiding detection and for escape when spotted are essential. Duiker, bushbuk and others inhabiting thick bush and dappled forests rely on camouflage and the ability to stand stock-still to avoid discovery. They prefer a silent, unseen retreat but if spotted will suddenly explode from concealment and dash for new cover during the confusion.
Blue duikers dive into burrows and gemsbok and other big animals will, given the opportunity, back into thorny scrub and lower horns ready to repel an attack. With their greasy, water repelling coats, sitatunga and Red lechwes happily take the plunge to evade pursuers.
For plains game it’s more a case of diligence and speed. Sentries keep watch and feeders periodically raise heads to check the outlook. When an alarm snort or whistle is given, the herd takes to its heels, either in a confusing array of directions or bunching together with the most vulnerable members up front or amid the mass (springbok pronking on the move pictured above). In flight, oribi scatter wildly, topi leap over each others’ backs and the “tommy” (Thompson’s gazelle) accelerates to about 80kph. The tsessebe, the swiftest hoofed animal, can sustain its fast, bouncing gait for long distances.
One particularly interesting defence strategy is that of stotting or pronking. Springbok, oribi and blesbok are among those who stot – using a back-arched bouncing gait or stiff-legged side-to-side spring. Impala pronk, with up to 10-metre-long and 3-metre-high bounds. Grey rhebok run with a rocking horse motion; Dik-diks bounce rhythmically and Reedbuck kick backwards at the crest of each leap. Such actions tell the predator he has been spotted, while the sudden movements, flashing of contrasting tail and rump markings, and the emission of a sickly odour may all combine to cause the attack to be mistimed, misdrirected or called off.
With such ingenuity, variety and beauty on offer, it’s time to learn the difference between lechwe and springbok, roan and eland, duiker and dik-dik, and place Africa’s antelope firmly on your safari wish-list. And remember to ignore those who dismiss impala. They may be everywhere, but they are still disarmingly beguiling.
Your antelope Checklist
How many of these species have you seen?
Sable, Hippotragus niger
Giant sable, H. n. variani
Roan, H. equinus
Gemsbok, Oryx gazelle
Fringe-eared oryx, O. g. callotis
Besia oryx, O. g. beisa
Scimitar-horned oryx, O. dammah
Greater kudu, Tragelaphus strepsiceros
Lesser kudu, T. imberbis
Sitatunga, T. s. gratus
Speke’s sitatunga, T. spekei
Selous’s sitatunga, T. s. selousi
Bushbuck (harnessed), T. scriptus
Powell’s bushbuck, T. powellii
Menelik’s, T. menelikii
Chobe bushbuck, T. s. ornatus
Limpopo bushbuck, T. s. roualeyni
Cape bushbuck, T. s. sylvaticus
Nyala, T. angasii
Mountain nyala, T. buxtoni
Common (Livingstone’s/Patterson’s) eland, Taurotragus oryx
Western giant (Derby) eland, T. derbianus
Eastern giant eland, T. d. gigas
Bongo, T. euryceros
Addax, Addax namomaculatus
Common (ringed) waterbuck, ellipsiprymnus
Defassa waterbuck, K. e. defassa
Red lechwe, K. leckwe
Nile lechwe, K. l. nilii
Black lechwe, K. l. smithemani
Kafue lechwe, K. l. kafuensis
Puku, K. adenota vardonii
Uganda kob, K. kob
Common (southern) reedbuck, Redunca arundinum
Mountain (Chanler’s) reedbuck, R. fulvorufula
Bohor reedbuck, R redunca
Grey rhebok (vaal), Pelea capreolus
Coke’s (bubal) hartebeest, Alcelaphus buselaphus
Western hartebeest, A. b. major
Jackson’s hartebeest, A. b. jacksonii
Red hartebeest, A. b. caama
Lelwel hartebeest, A. b. lelweli
Swayne’s hartebeest, A. B. swayneii
Lichtenstein’s hartebeest, Sigmoceros lichtensteinii
Hunter’s hartebeest (hirola), Damaliscus hunter
Tsessebe (sassaby), D. lunatus
Bontebok, D. dorcas dorcas
Blesbok, D. d. phillipsi
Topi (tiang korrigum), D. korrihum
Black wildebeest, Connochaetes gnou
Blue wildebeest, C. taurinus
Cookson’s wildebeest, C. cooksonii
Impala, Aepyceros marsupialis
Black-faced impala, A. m. petersi
Springbok, Antodocras marsupialis
Thompson’s gazelle, Gazella thompsonii
Grant’s gazelle, G. granti
Soemmerring’s (aoul) gazelle, G. soemmerringii
Robert’s gazelle, G. robertii
Addra (nanger, dama, mhorr), G. addra
Cuvier’s gazelle, G. cuvieri
Red-fronted gazelle, G. rufifrons
Speke’s gazelle, G. spekei
Slender horned gazelle, G. leptoceros
Dama gazelle, G. dama
Dorcas gazelle, G. forcas
Gerenuk, Litocranius walleri
Dibatag (Clarke’s gazelle), Ammodorcas clarkei
Klipspringer (Maasai), Oreotragus oreotragus
Suni (Livingstone’s antelope), Neotragus moschatus
Oribi (Cotton’s), Ourebia ourebi
Steenbok, Raphicerus campestris
Cape grysbok, R. melanotis
Sharpe’s grysok, R. sharpei
Damara (Kirk’s) dik-dik, Madoqua kirkii
Gunther’s dik-dik, M. guentheri
Salt’s dik-dik, M. saltii
Piacentini’s dik-dik, M. piacentinii
Royal antelope, Neotragus pygmaeus
Pygmy antelope, Neotragus batesi
Beira, Dorcatragus megalotis
Grey (common or Grimm’s) duiker, Sylvicapra grimmia
Jentink’s duiker, Cephalophus jentinki
Black duiker, C. niger
Black-fronted duiker, C. nigrifrons
White-bellied duiker, C. leucogaster
Weyn’s duiker, C. weynsi
Ogilby’s duiker, C. ogilbyi
Zebra duiker, C. zebra
Ader’s duiker, C. adersi
Abbot’s duiker, C. spadix
Red duiker, C. natalensis
Harvey’s red duiker, C. harveyi
Yellow backed duiker, C. sylviculter or C. leucogaster (West Africa)
Bay duiker, C. dorsalis
Maxwell’s duiker, C. maxwelli
Red-flanked duiker, C. refilatus
Peter’s dukier, C. callipygus
Blue duiker, Philantomba monticola