So often when visiting the wilderness, whilst we ‘see’ animals, much remains hidden to us. It’s only when we take the time to pause, and explore the relationships between animals and their environment, that we are able to ‘see’ in a deeper and more meaningful way. We have many species of antelope in southern Africa, but did you know that many of them belong to the same genus i.e., Tragelaphus? Let’s take poetic license with the term and loosely translate it as “those with spiralled horns”. I’d like to believe that a unicorn would belong to the same group! But, returning to reality, let’s explore three of these animals.
The total list for southern African antelope in this group is the Bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus), the Nyala (Tragelaphus angasii), the Sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekei), the Greater kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) and the Eland (Tragelaphus oryx). Let’s begin with some interesting facts about the kudu.
The kudu we are accustomed to seeing are known as the Greater kudu. They are widely distributed in South Africa – very common in game reserves and on private game farms. Being one of the more secretive antelope, they spend much of their time hidden in thick bush, and it is this behaviour that has allowed them to survive even in farming areas where other large herbivores have been wiped out. They are traditionally active in the early morning and evening, but in areas where there is hunting, they have adapted their behaviour and become nocturnal in order to survive. They are mainly browsers on a wide variety of forbs, bushes and trees, and can become very unpopular with farmers because they do extensive damage to crops.
When they are disturbed, they will freeze, watch and listen, assessing the situation. If they decide that danger is imminent, they will either move away quietly, or dash off giving a loud, sharp alarm bark. Whilst they run rather heavily, they can move through dense bush surprisingly quietly. The males lay their spectacular horns back whilst running so they do not hit or get tangled up in the overhanging branches. Their tails are curled up over their backs in flight mode so that the white underside provides a visual alarm signal and a marker for the rest of the herd to follow. Somewhat surprisingly considering the fact that that they are the second largest antelope species in the world, under stress kudus have been known to jump 3.5 m fences. In Namibia, the bulls can jump across the Eastern National Water Carrier Canal – a span of 3.7 m. This is too wide for the cows though, and they often get trapped attempting to make the crossing.
Greater kudus arguably have the most spectacular horns in the animal kingdom. The number of twists in its horns can tell you the kudu’s age. They begin to grow when the animal is between six and twelve months. Their first spiral rotation is formed by the age of two, and a full two-and-a-half rotations is reached at the age of six. However, they may occasionally have three full twists and their record length is an unbelievable 187.64 cm. Bulls weigh as much as 315 kg with a shoulder height of 1.4 m, and cows can weigh 210 kg with a shoulder height of 1.25 m.
The Common eland have a number of really interesting behaviours and traits. One in particular fascinates me – when walking, the tendon or joints in the eland bull’s foreleg produce a sharp clicking sound. For years, the cause remained a mystery, but we now have a commonly accepted theory for this phenomenon. The joints click whilst the animal walks, and dominant males have also been observed eliciting the sound by lifting and lowering their front legs. This sound is produced as the tendons slide over the front carpal joint. This sound appears to be part of a complex system of social signalling amongst the males – one of the many social behaviours designed to intimidate rivals without engaging in physical conflict with its inherent possibility of real injury.
Despite their huge size (they can weigh as much as 942 kg), they are great jumpers. An eland bull can jump two metres from a standing start, and there are accounts of younger animals clearing a three-metre-high fence.
The Common eland is better adapted than cattle to the African environment. It is also easily domesticated. As such, it has been farmed for its meat and milk in both South Africa and Russia. Another startling fact is that the highly nutritious milk of the eland, after being exposed to air for two hours, can then be stored at 37 °C for up to eight months. Nope – not a typo, as I thought was the case. This info is repeated in more than one scientific paper! This milk is considered the anti-bacterial, “long-life” milk of the wilderness!
The nyala has an interesting relationship with baboons and vervet monkeys. They eat all the fruit and flowers dropped by their primate friends. What do they provide in return? Nyala are one of Africa’s most alert antelope, and they have exceptional hearing, smell and sight. When they spot/hear/smell danger, they bark a striking alarm call, which also warns the baboons and monkeys.
Fossil evidence suggests that the nyala has been a separate species since the end of the Miocene period (5.8 million years ago). Homo sapiens have only ‘recently’ evolved – i.e., in the last 200 000 years (depending on which account you subscribe to). Which gives you an idea of just how far back the nyala goes.
Male nyala have a complex repertoire of dominance displays. They will dig up soft soil with their horns and stroke their face and horns on bushes with a nodding action of their head. He may also thrash bushes (occasionally also pawing the ground at the same time) with his horns just before or after an encounter with another bull. Fascinating to watch is their “dance”. The male will raise the crest of white hairs along his neck and back, hold his head high and parade slowly around whilst high stepping. To escalate the situation, he will also curl his tail up over his back and fan out the white hairs on his underside, whilst lowering his head so that his horns are pointing forward. Once again, all of this is done in order to establish dominance before engaging in physical battles.
One final point of interest about nyala. African antelope larger than nyala are referred to as “bulls and cows” whilst those smaller are referred to as “rams and ewes”. The nyala is the ‘crossover’ point, with a nyala “bull” and a nyala “ewe”.
There is so much to learn about nature, and the more you know, the more rewarding your encounters will be. So please feel free to share these columns with your friends who love nature? You will be enhancing their experience of the wilderness…
Jacqui Ikin & the Cross Country Team