Greater Antelope Facts | East Africa Wildlife Guide
Africa’s open grasslands and wooded bushlands support the most splendid biodiversity of small, medium and large antelope in the world. All are members of the Bovidae family, which also claims our domestic livestock. Bovidae can be divided into four basic categories including grazers (wildebeest and hartebeest), selective grazers (steenbok, oribi, waterbuck, reedbuck, roan, sable and oryx), grazers and browsers (tsessebe, impala, eland and gazelles) and browsers (bushbuck and kudu).
All antelope are ruminants. They have four stomachs for fodder in varying stages of digestion, and like domestic cattle, they reprocess already-swallowed fodder by chewing the cud.
Antelope live in almost all African habitats. Anywhere that humans have not extensively broken the soil, wild herbivores can be seen. Wildebeest and their alcelaphinid relatives favor open and wooded grassland, as there is more cover from predators. Impalas, however, prefer woodlands, and some duiker species prefer living in thick, almost rain-forest-type vegetation. Riverine strips and transition zones between vegetation types are also used by some species.
Gazelle have adapted to a wide range of habitats, from arid to semi-arid—and in the case of springbok and some Grant’s subspecies they have adapted to watered grassland, as preferred by the Thomson’s gazelle. Roan and sable inhabit grasslands that have good bush and tree cover, and both frequent well-watered grasslands and wooded valleys. In contrast, oryx prefer an arid habitat and can live in total desert conditions. Interestingly, as is the case with the steenbok, oryx (or gemsbok as they are known in Southern Africa) are also water-independent.
All species of reduncinae antelope prefer wetlands or tall, tussocked, marshy grasslands. Even hillside-living reedbuck are associated with wet grasslands and hill marshes.
In general, tragelaphinae live at low densities in arid to sub-humid areas, favoring regions of thick cover such as shady, broken forest and bushland. This is true of the greater kudu and nyala. Two notable exceptions are eland, which frequent open grasslands and often roam as high as 14,850 feet, and the long-hoofed sitatunga, which live in swamps and marshy lakesides throughout the eastern Africa. Small antelope live in a wide range of habitats, from forests to thickets, to kopjes, rock outcrops and open grasslands.
Some male antelopinae (including gazelles such as springbok) and alcelaphinae (including wildebeest and tsessebe) are territorial during the breeding season. Males set up their territories and try to prevent females from leaving, despite a tendency to want to move on when the grass supply is diminishing.
Springbok and impala are rarely seen alone, except for the occasional territorial male forlornly standing his ground after the breeding season. Most herds are made up of less than 100 animals. Interestingly, antelope breeding season is synchronized with the onset of the rains. In fact, impala are so adept at predicting the rains that they will hold off delivering their young for over two weeks after birth is due, should the rains be late. This is a remarkable feat, considering that impala have an exact gestation period of six months. During the “bush babies” safari season (usually early December), once the rains have arrived, one may see young of all the antelope species.
Both steenbok and duiker pair for life and remain territorial. Territory sizes may vary from 165 to 1,650 feet in diameter, depending on the season and local conditions. Such relatively small territories allow the animals to know precisely the location and season for food plants, the best escape routes and the most effective hiding places. Sexual maturity may be reached in less than a year. Gestation lasts about six months, therefore, two births a year are possible with a relatively constant food supply. Before it is 2 years old, the young animal will leave its parents’ territory.
Waterbuck, puku, lechwe and various species of reedbuck live in small, loose associations of adult females and young, moving through a world of male-dominated territories. Groups are rarely larger than 10 to 15 animals. Lechwe exhibit a variation on the territorial theme. They establish a “lek,” or territorial breeding ground, where a group of dominant males display and mate with females. Gestation lasts about nine months before a single calf is dropped.
In the subfamily tragelaphinae, the onset of female sexual maturity begins at 18 months old. Males continue to grow beyond sexual maturity, so that the difference between the sexes becomes gradually more striking. A single calf is born after a gestation of about six months. Calves are weaned at 3 to 4 months old.
An eland group is usually made up of a few females and young, with a loosely territorial adult male in attendance. This male is the one that will eventually mate with the group’s females. Females reach sexual maturity at age 3. During conception peaks, small groups will aggregate into groups of hundreds of elands, which can be considered somewhat migratory, as they move over great distances.
Hippostraginae (roan, sable and oryx) have a system of matriarchal hierarchy, resulting in small herds of five to 20 animals, with varying degrees of male participation. In sable, female herds range over adjacent male territories. In roan, a single male accompanies the females; in oryx, male groups satellite females for most of the year, but only the dominant male will mate.
Photo Credit: Eric Rock
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