There are some people out there who will tell you that we should not impose our human standards of aesthetics on the animals that share our world; all of nature’s creation should be viewed as beautiful and important components of vibrant and valuable ecosystems. These people are noble and fair minded and pure of heart. They are also wrong. This is a sable antelope;
Just look at that magnificent bastard! He’s a looker and he knows it. Look at that power! That grace! If he was human, he would be surrounded by fawning young women in tight bikinis and copious amounts of makeup. Then there’s this guy;
He’s a Saiga antelope.
And I have nothing more to say about that.
In my posts this year so far, I have ensured my immediate arrest should our government become bored with this whole democracy thing, and potentially offended an entire continent (don’t worry, it was only a small one). It’s time to take things down a notch or two. Yup. It’s time for another Lowveld ecosystem post.
Buck. Again. And some rather fetching ones. They are called, by scientific types, the Tragelaphini. The rest of us sometimes call them the spiral-horned antelopes. Curiously enough, they are fairly closely related to cattle.
The Bushbuck is a perfect place to start; not only is it the smallest of the spiral horned antelopes, it is the textbook representative of the tribe. Before we do anything else, just take a look at him;
You can see why I have called him pretty. And handsome. Oddly enough, those spots and stripes and dapples aren’t there to make him stand out in a crowd. Quite the opposite. The spiral-horned antelopes originally evolved to live in thick bush and forests. Most of them have remained there. The spots and stripes and dapples render a Bushbuck almost invisible in thick cover. So well do they work that the Bushbuck is able to survive in areas long since abandoned by other wild animals.
You may have noticed, and possibly taken mortal offence at the fact, that I keep calling him a him. There’s a reason for this. The spiral horned antelopes show a high degree of sexual dimorphism. This is a fancy way of saying that the males are substantially different to the females. And like birds, the males got all the nice clothes. Male Bushbuck, round here (they are one of the most widespread animals in Africa, and come in different sizes and different coats in different areas), weigh about 42kg or so, while the females weigh about 28kg. They’re a different colour, too. Here’s one;
You would be forgiven for thinking they were two different species. Wait until you see the Nyalas.
You are, however, not likely to see them together. Like most of the small buck I wrote about last time, the Bushbuck is a solitary animal. This is not typical of the spiral horned tribe. They do everything from living alone to gathering in herds of hundreds. But something about the Bushbuck’s solitude is typical of the tribe. Unlike the small buck I wrote about last time, the Bushbuck (like all of his cousins) is not territorial. He is simply indifferent to the company of his peers.
And now we get to the interesting part; those two sharp things pointing out the top. They really are very sharp indeed. Sharp enough to be deadly. As I said earlier, the Bushbuck manages to survive in areas where other game has been driven out. Human beings being human beings, surviving is not the same thing as being left alone.
Bushbuck are hunted. A lot. Sometimes, people hunt them with dogs. And those dogs die. Not every time, but often enough. Two sharpened spikes backed up with a 40kg punch are not to be trifled with. Sometimes, people hunt them with guns. And, very rarely, but often enough to be remarked upon, those people die. Bushbuck rams are brave and tough little animals and have been known to kill people.
So what’s the interesting part? Those horns are not there for self-defence. There is no doubt that they are very effective when used for self-defence, but if that was their primary purpose then the females, which, as both the bearers and the sole caretakers of their offspring, are more important in maintaining the Bushbuck population, would have them too. They don’t.
The horns are a sexual characteristic. The males use them to, to use the words of one of those orange-painted, steroid-raddled young men with complicated hair, score chicks.
And this is where things get even more interesting; the bush is not filled with the clashing of horns and the blood of the vanquished. Bushbuck rams hardly ever fight in earnest. Instead they have dance-offs, like those pretend gangsters in those Michael Jackson videos in the 80’s.
They walk around each other in mincing little circles, arching their backs and flexing their necks to prove that if they did decide to fight, they would kick some ass. If things escalate, they might even jump into the air or clash horns. But it is a rare thing for them to fight in earnest.
There is a very good reason for this. When two evenly matched Bushbuck rams have a serious go at each other, there is a very good chance of one of them dying. And dying is not a very sensible thing to do, evolutionarily speaking. Or just generally, when you get right down to it.
Bushbuck rams have vicious horns for the same reason that superpowers have nuclear weapons; so that they don’t have to fight. The biggest, strongest Bushbuck with the biggest horns, the most mincing steps and the archingest back wins by default, and everyone lives to dance another day. Except for those unfortunate hunting dogs who learn the hard way that the sexier a Bushbuck ram is, the wiser it is to leave it alone.
Nyalas are, at least in the Lowveld, the next step up from the Bushbuck. They are, arguably, even more attractive. They also favour thickly wooded areas. The major differences between Nyalas and Bushbuck are that Nyalas are far more social, and bigger.
And much more committed to that whole sexual dimorphism thing. Males weigh in at about 115kg while females only weigh about 58kg. Males are dark and females are light. Males are fuzzy and females are sleek. Males have horns, females don’t. How they recognize each other as potential mates is beyond me.
So different are the two sexes that they span a rather curious divide. The males of smaller antelopes are referred to as rams, and the females, ewes, while larger antelope are referred to as bulls and cows. Not the Nyalas though. Male Nyalas are big enough to be called bulls, but the females don’t crack the nod, and are relegated to being called ewes.
The vast difference between the sexes is the end result of that whole “display to avoid fighting” thing that the Bushbucks do. Nyala bulls didn’t grow so big to become stronger; they grew so big to look stronger.
Nyalas have evolved a highly complex display which consists of walking past each other while pretending to suffer a crippling bout of constipation brought on by a build-up of static electricity. The biggest, most constipated bull wins, and the loser demonstrates his capitulation by pretending to eat something. Scientists call the constipated walk a lateral display. Real fights are rare and vicious.
The Nyalas undeniable good looks have had an unfortunate side-effect. They are exceedingly popular with big game hunters. For a certain type of person it must stand to reason that anything that beautiful should die.
The same types of people also have it in for the Kudus. For the same reason. Just look at this guy;
Kudus have much in common with their smaller cousins; the same powerful, well-put together bodies, the spots and the stripes. But Kudus are bigger. Much bigger. The females weigh in at 170kg, the males at 260. They are, simply put, a wonder to behold.
And then there are those horns. They’re the biggest of any antelope’s. Measured along the outside of the curve, they are over a metre long. Sometimes a metre and a half. Which is, when you think about it, rather odd. Like their smaller cousins, Kudus tend to live in fairly thick bush. Next time you are at a loose end, grab yourself a stepladder, unfold it, and go running through a thicket. Be sure to take some pictures and send them through.
Oddly enough, dashing through tangled undergrowth with a large and elaborate frame stuck to their heads doesn’t seem to present Kudu bulls with much of a problem. They tilt their heads back so that the horns lie flat along their backs.
Still, growing massive, twirly appendages on top of your head doesn’t seem to make much sense. Until you remember how their cousins settle arguments. Kudus also tend to settle their differences by displaying. The horns grow throughout their lives, and must provide an easy reference for rivals. The older and bigger the bull, the bigger the horns. Sorted.
The system obviously works quite well. Like their cousins, Kudu bulls seldom fight. This is, again, quite sensible. Those horns are too big and unwieldy for effective stabbing, but they come with their own risks. Kudu horns fit together like Chinese puzzles. Every now and then, people come across two dead kudus, locked together by their horns. Sometimes just the skulls remain. The unfortunate combatants have become permanently entangled, and starved. When not just one of you, but both of you stand to lose your lives, fighting makes even less sense.
There is something rather unusual about Kudus. Most of South Africa’s big game has been fenced in in reserves and game farms. Not Kudus. They are still found all over the place.
There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, despite their considerable size, they are very good at not being seen. In places where they are more likely to be disturbed by mankind, they live in small groups and spend their days hidden in thick bush, only coming out at night. But that only explains how they stay there, not how they got there. They got there like this;
For kudus, fences might as well not exist. They are phenomenal jumpers. A 250kg bull can clear an eight foot fence without a run-up.
The result of this is that most farms in the country are home to Kudus. Which is a good thing for the farmers. They, like the trophy guys, hunt them. But for a better reason; food. Kudus are delicious. More specifically, Kudu biltong is delicious. Biltong is cured and dried meat, and is as South African as apple pie is American. Despite the fact that the end result is the same for the animal, I somehow find shooting a Kudu for food to be far more acceptable than shooting one in order to nail its head to a wall.
Having Kudus all over the place has another, less fortunate outcome. We don’t have “deer crossing” signs out here. We have “Kudu crossing” signs. And with good reason. For drivers, Kudus are very dangerous indeed. It’s almost as if they were designed to take out cars. First of all, the fact that they live in thick bush means that they tend to appear out of nowhere, bolting out of thickets encroaching on the road right in front of oncoming cars.
Then there’s that whole “moving around at night” thing, which has even less fortunate consequences than simple darkness. Kudus jump. When they see an oncoming car, what they are seeing is the lights. They jump over them. Which puts, in the case of bulls, 250 odd kilograms of powerful animal with huge sharp bits sticking out of it out of reach of the bumper, and at the level of the windscreen. The results can be horrifying.
That’s just about all for the Kudus, except for one thing; another trait common to their tribe. Walking in bush populated by things like lions, leopards and elephants tends to heighten the senses. You creep along in silence, eyes darting towards any sort of movement, and ears straining to pick out any furtive and sneaking sounds that might herald your imminent demise. Which makes this a little disconcerting;
Yup. Kudus bark. As do their kin. And they do not always have the decency to reveal themselves like the one in the video. That low explosion of sound is usually the first sign that you have disturbed a small herd of Kudu. This is why it’s always a good idea to take along a clean pair of pants when walking in the bush.
They bark like this for a very good reason. It serves very handily as a warning to their fellows, but it is mostly done for your benefit. “I see you!” it says. “Don’t even bother trying to catch me!”
It obviously works, since I never have done. I’ve been a little too busy changing my pants.
And so we come to the last of the spiral horned antelopes. The one which has broken ranks and gone its own way. It has decided to leave the thick cover favoured by its kin and try something new. Growing.
Kudus, with their 250 kg, are really big buck. They are, however, mere tiddlers compared to the Eland. Bull Elands can weigh over 900kg. They are heavier than most buffalo, and stand head and shoulders above domestic cattle. They are, in other words, massive.
Growing this big has involved making a few changes. They have, as I mentioned, moved out of the undergrowth and out onto the plains. Fuelling bodies that size takes grass as well as the leaves and succulents their cousins live on. Lots of grass. To find enough grass, they have become nomads. They still, however, have the stripes that mark their smaller cousins.
They have also started to gather in herds. Big herds. Herds of over 500 are not uncommon.
But they have made one change that is more significant than all the others. They’ve given up on running. Elands are the slowest of the antelopes. Their top speed is only about 40km/h, and even then, they don’t last very long.
This means that they are pretty much incapable of running away from anything big enough to kill them. Which means that the Eland has had to make a few adjustments. I mentioned above that the Bushbuck’s horns were a sexual characteristic. Not the Elands’. Both male and female Elands are armed with horns. With good reason. If you can’t run away, and you are too big to hide, you only have one option left. You have to stand and fight.
And Elands do. The females will even work together to fight off lions. They don’t even try to flee.
There is one predator that Eland do flee from, however; us. Elands start running away from humans at a further distance than any other African animals. And there may be a fascinating reason for this.
The original inhabitants of Southern Africa were the Bushmen, recognisable to older people as “those guys from The Gods Must be Crazy”. They were hunters, and they had a special relationship with the Eland. They revered them, and preferred them as quarry above any other game. It might seem a little gung-ho to go dashing off after the biggest, most dangerous quarry you can find, but maybe not. People tend to think that the Bushmen hunted with poison arrows. They did, but poison isn’t magic.
Animals shot with poison arrows can go on running for hours. So, however, can the Bushmen. They were the original marathon runners, and their hunting technique might just explain why dentists from New Jersey are capable of running 40km. Bushmen ran down their quarry. And since Elands are slow, and quick to tire, they were the quarry of choice. The Bushmen a largely gone from most of the country, but the Elands haven’t forgotten.
The Bushmen were not the last people to try and exploit the Eland. That would be the Russians. It is not unexpected that people should try to domesticate something as large and productive as the Eland. It is, however, just a little unexpected that they should feel the need to cart them off to the great Northern steppes to do so. But that is what has happened. The Russians have spent decades working to domesticate the Eland. And they’ve been very successful. While we back in the Elands’ home have failed. But there might even be a reasonable explanation for this; space.
The steppes of Russia are one of the world’s great, wide-open spaces. Finding lost Elands there must be pretty easy. We have a few more trees here, so big as they may be, lost Elands would be harder to track down.
And they would need to be tracked down. Elands, you see, are just as good at jumping as their little cousins the Kudus. Unlikely as it may seem, there is a 900kg buck out there that can cheerfully jump over a 2,5m high fence. When they’re younger, they can clear 3m. Pair this up with their nomadic tendencies, and you have an animal that is almost impossible to contain. And containing animals is one of the first steps when it comes to domesticating them.
And that would be just about that for the Eland, if it weren’t for the clicking. Yup. Elands click. Especially the bulls. People watching a herd of Eland become aware of a repetitive, slightly metallic clicking sound as they move around, like two large ball-bearings being knocked together.
It was always a bit of a mystery. People have theorised that it was the joints in their knees, or the bones in their ankles. The current theory is that it is their hooves. As the Eland sets its foot down on the ground, the two halves of their hooves spread apart to distribute their weight over a wider area. When they lift their feet, the two halves spring back together, tapping against each other with an audible click.
And that, good people, is that. Almost there with the buck. If you take “almost” to mean “halfway”.