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Wildebeest
FACT FILE:
Swahili Name: Nyumbu Ya Montu
Scientific Name: Connochaetes taurinus
Size: 50 to 58 inches at the shoulder
Weight: 265 to 600 pounds
Lifespan: 20 years
Habitat: Open woodland and open grassy plains
Diet: Grazers
Gestation: 8 to 81/2 months
Predators: Lions, cheetahs, hunting dogs, hyenas


There is no other antelope like the wildebeest. It looks like it was assembled from spare parts – the forequarters could have come from and ox, the hindquarters from an antelope and the mane and tail from a horse. The antics of the territorial bulls during breeding season have earned them the name “clowns of the savanna.”

The species that forms the large herds of the Serengetis-Mara ecosystem of Tanzania and Kenya is variously known as the brindled, blue- or white-bearded gnu. Scientists do, however, make a distinction and list the blue as a separate race restricted to southern Tanzania. The wildebeest described here is the white-bearded of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania.

Physical Characteristics

The head of the wildebeest is large and box-like. Both males and females have curving horns, that are close together at the base, but curve outward, inward and slightly backward. The body looks disproportionate, as the front end is heavily built, the hindquarters slender and the legs spindly.

The wildebeest is gray with darker vertical stripes that look almost black from a distance. This species has a dark name and a long tail. Newborns are a yellowish-brown, but change to adult color at about 2 months.

Habitat
Large herds of wildebeest are located in the plains and acacia of eastern Africa.

Behavior
In the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem the animals make a migratory circle each year of 500 to 1,000 miles. The migration starts after the calving season in January and February on the short grass plains in the southeastern Serengeti. Wildebeests move west toward Lake Victoria, across the grass savanna to the open woodlands, then turn north into the Mara. They then begin the return trip to the south. They are relentless in their advance and will swim rivers and lakes in such huge masses that many are injured, lost (especially in the case of calves) or killed.

Wildebeest are continually on the move as they seek favorable supplied of grass and water. Active both day and night, they often string out in long single columns when on the move. They also cover long distances at a slow rocking gallop but can run fast when necessary. Zebras and Thomson’s gazelles, and some of their many predators, accompany the migrating wildebeests.

During mating season smaller breeding groups of about 150 animals form within the massive herds. In these small groups, five or six of the most active bulls establish and defend territories that females wander through. The bulls go through all kinds of antics, galloping and bucking around their territories. They paw the ground and rub their heads on it, spreading secretions produced by the preorbital and interdigital glands. They also urinate and defecate in a certain spot and toll in it to signal to other bulls to stay away.

When neighboring bulls meet at the edges of their territories they go through a highly ritualized “challenge” in which they paw the ground, buck, snort and fight. They typical combat position in on their knees, facing one another, with their foreheads flat on the ground – they knock heads and hit at the base of the horns but seldom injure one another. Some scientists believe these challenges may increase hormone levels, as the nonterritorial bulls in the bachelor herds are very placid.

Diet
Strictly grazers, wildebeest prefer short grass. They are unable to go without water for more than a few days.

Caring for the Young
Wildebeest females give birth to a single calf in the middle of the herd, not seeking a secluded place, as do many antelopes. Amazingly, about 80 percent of the females calve within the same 2- to 3- week period, creating a glut for predators and thus enabling more calves to survive the crucial first few weeks. A calf can stand and run within minutes of birth. It immediately begins to follow its mother and stays close to her to avoid getting lost or killed by waiting predators. Within days, it can run fast enough to keep up with the adult herd.

A calf eats its first grass at about 10 days, although it is still suckled for at least 4 months. Even after weaning, it will remain with the mother until the next year’s calf is born. At that time the young males are driven away, but the females often remain in the same groups as their mothers.

Predators
Wildebeest are the preferred prey of lions and spotted hyena. Although the animals have no camouflage coloring, they get some protection from gathering in large herds. (If a calf loses its mother it will imprint on and follow whatever is closest – a car, a person or occasionally even a predator, but in the later case, probably not for long.)

Did you know?
  • The wildebeest is one of the few African antelopes to have extended its range in the last 50 years. They numbered about 250,000 in 1960 and are thought to number 1.5 million today.
  • Wildebeest, or gnus, (pronounced 'news'), are noisy. They constantly emit low moans and if disturbed, snort explosively.


                                                       copyright: Paul Janssen