Antelope and buffalo
The antelope are an unwavering feature of Tanzania’s natural landscape, thriving in every habitat from rainforest to swamps to desert, except where they have been eliminated by human activity. Antelope are placed alongside buffalos in the family Bovidae, which is comprised of almost 140 species of cloven-hoofed ruminant split (including familiar farmyard animals such as cattle, sheep, goats and their kin) and East Africa is the apex of its diversity, with 45 species present.
Africa’s only wild ox and largest bovid, the Cape buffalo is a close relative of the similar-looking Asian water buffalo, and thus of domestic cattle. Weighing up to 800kg, this gregarious herd animal has few natural enemies, though it does form an important prey item for large lion prides in certain areas – with the lion sometimes coming off second best in a confrontation.
Buffaloes are known for their unpredictable temperament, but they generally only attack people when wounded or otherwise provoked – though solitary bulls occasionally xcharge for no apparent reason.
Very adaptable and widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa, buffaloes are dependent on the reliable availability of water – not only for drinking but for bathing and wallowing.
Good buffalo sightings can be expected in most Tanzania reserves, but the best place for large aggregations in Katavi, which supports several thousand-strong herds during the dry season.
Katavi, but also Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Manyara, Tarangire, Arusha, Selous, Mikumi and Ruaha.
Also known as the brindled gnu, this legendary antelope, with its off-black coat and flattened horns, look a bit like a buffalo from a distance. At close quarters, however, the wildebeest is much slighter than a buffalo, its elongated face giving it a rather pensive expression, and it has a distinctive shaggy beard. It is the main mover behind the world’s greatest mammal migration, which takes place in the Serengeti ecosystem and is comprised of some two million wildebeest as well as thousands of but also zebra, gazelle and eland.
The Serengeti migration follows a reasonably predictable but far from infallible annual cycle. The wildebeest usually disperse into the southeast Serengeti from Dec-May, then march in a braying column of up to 40km long to cross the Grumeti River in June/July, before dispersing into the northern Serengeti and Kenya until Oct, plodding back to the southern Serengeti in Nov, when the cycle starts all over again.
The buffalo-like appearance of the wildebeest is alluded to in its name, which is Dutch/Afrikaans for ‘wild ox’. The onomatopoeic name gnu, by contrast, is African in origin and refers to its protracted nasal call.
The calving season peaks in February, when the place to be is the Serengeti-Ngorongoro border region around Lake Ndutu
Serengeti, obviously, but also Tarangire, Manyara, Selous, Ruaha and most other Tanzanian reserves, often in the company of Burchell’s zebra.
Contrary to appearances, the ‘spiral horned antelopes’ of the Tragelaphini are more closely related to cattle and buffaloes than to true antelopes. Five species are present in Tanzania, all of which are grey- or chestnut-brown with some white spotting and/or vertical striping on the flanks. They display significant sexual dimorphism: the male is typically a head taller than the female, and has magnificent spiralled horns. The Tragelaphines are less fleet of foot than true antelope, for which reason they favour wooded habitats where stealth is more important than speed.
The male greater kudu is the most magnificent of African antelope, its statuesque bearing accentuated by metre-long double-spiralled horns. Associated with woodland and forested watercourses, it is an accomplished jumper, capable of clearing fences twice its shoulder height of 1.5m. It is grey-brown with up to 10 vertical flank stripes, and travels in small herds, though males are often solitary. In northern Tanzania, the greater kudu has never recovered from a 19th century rinderpest epidemic and, but it is relatively common in Saadani, Ruaha and Mikumi.
The lesser kudu, an uncommon and skittish East African endemic of dry acacia woodland, is distinguishable from the greater kudu by its smaller size, white throat patches and extra flank stripes (11-plus). Small herds are sometimes encountered in Tarangire, Mkomazi and Ruaha.
The Bambi-like bushbuck is Tanzania’s most widespread medium-sized antelope, present in all non-arid habitats, even outside of protected areas. The chestnut brown male has relatively small straight horns while the female is smaller, paler and elaborately spotted. Secretive and solitary, it is especially common on Rubondo Island but might be seen in any forest or riverine woodland.
The semi-aquatic sitatunga, a widespread but secretive swamp-dweller, looks like a large shaggy bushbuck, with unique splayed hooves adapted to its preferred watery habitat. It is readily observed on Rubondo Island alongside the bushbuck but seldom seen elsewhere.
Africa’s largest antelope, the eland has a shoulder height of 150–180 cm and can weigh up to 950 kg. A somewhat atypical Tragelaphine, it has a rather bovine appearance accentuated by relatively short horns and a large dewlap, and its light tan coat has faint vertical stripes. Eland herds typically number 10-15 animals, but seasonal migrations may involve several hundred animals. Thinly but widely distributed in East Africa, it is difficult to approach closely, an essential defence strategy for a relatively slow-moving antelope of open habitats. It might be seen almost anywhere, but Serengeti, Ngorongoro and Mikumi are the most reliable spots.
Other large antelope
The antelope discussed below all have a shoulder height of around 1.2-1.5 metres, which makes them as tall as, or taller than, a donkey or ass.
Related to the blue wildebeest, the hartebeest has large shoulders, a pale yellowish coat, stunted horns, and an elongated face that gives it a rather morose demeanour. Coke’s hartebeest (also known as the kongoni) is often seen atop a termite mound scanning the Serengeti plains for predators. It is replaced by the endangered Liechtenstein’s hartebeest in southern Tanzania.
The topi, a glossier and more handsome variation on a hartebeest, is also associated with open country. It is dark brown with black on the flanks and snout, and striking yellow lower legs. It occurs alongside Coke’s hartebeest in the Serengeti-Ngorongoro ecosystem, where it is common.
The equine roan antelope stands up to 1.5m tall at the shoulder, has a uniform fawn-grey coat with a pale belly, short decurved horns and a light mane. It inhabits dense dry woodland and is uncommon in most of Tanzania, but is likely to be seen over the course a few days in Ruaha.
Also rather horse-like, the male sable antelope is a stunner, with a jet black coat offset by white face, underbelly and rump, and decurved horns up to 1.4 long. The female is chestnut brown and has shorter horns. The 8,000 sable antelope that migrate through the greater Selous ecosystem constitute the largest population in Africa, but are concentrated south of the river and seldom seen by tourists. It is more likely to be seen in Ruaha, Katavi or Saadani.
The stockier waterbuck is easily recognised by its shaggy brown coat and the male’s large lyre-shaped horns. The western Defassa race has a full white rump, while its eastern counterpart has a white U, as if it sat on a freshly painted toilet seat. Small herds are common in the vicinity of standing water, particularly in Arusha, Manyara and Selous.
The oryx is a handsome ashy dry-country antelope with straight, backward-sweeping horns that grow longer than one metre. It can go without water for weeks, obtaining all it needs from the plants it eats. It is present but seldom seen in Tarangire, Mkomazi and the northern Serengeti.
The antelope below are comparable in size to a European deer, with shoulder heights of around 80-90cm.
The fleet-footed Thomson’s gazelle or ‘Tommy’ is a characteristic grazer of the Serengeti, where it is the favoured prey of the even faster cheetah. Like most gazelles, it is light chestnut with pale underparts, and it has a distinctive black flank stripe. Endemic to East Africa, it has a range centred on Serengeti-Ngorongoro, but also occurs in Arusha and Tarangire.
Grant’s gazelle is much larger than Thomson’s, has longer horns, and lacks a black side stripe. It occurs alongside Thomson’s gazelle in the Serengeti ecosystem, but its range also extends southward as far as Ruaha NP.
Superficially gazelle-like but more closely related to wildebeest and hartebeest, the impala is an elegantly proportioned chestnut antelope with black and white rump stripes. The male has magnificent lyre-shaped horns. Gregarious and territorial, the impala often moves in herds of 100 or more, though bachelor groups are smaller. Herds jump magnificently – up to 3m high and 10m in length – in all directions when disturbed, a strategy designed to confuse predators. The most numerous antelope in southern Tanzania, it is also common in lightly wooded habitats in the north, but absent from Ngorongoro Carter.
The gerenuk looks like a cross between a gazelle and an impala, but can distinguished from either by its extraordinarily long neck (as reflected in the Swahili name ‘swala twiga’, meaning ‘gazelle giraffe’) and unique custom of standing on its hind legs to eat. Within Tanzania, its range is restricted to Mkomazi and Tarangire.
Arguably the most nondescript of African antelope are the three reedbuck species of the genus Redunca – lightly built, pale coloured grassland dwellers with white underbellies and small horns. The Bohor reedbuck is often seen in pairs or trios in the Serengeti ecosystem, but is replaced by the southern reedbuck in parts of southern Tanzania. The localised mountain reedbuck is almost exclusively associated with grassy and rocky mountain slopes.
The kob-like puku is a floodplain resident whose range is centred on southern Tanzania’s little visited Kilombero Valley, which supports around 50,000 animals, an estimated 70% of the global population. It might also be seen in the Rukwa basin and Selous.
The following antelope mostly stand 60cm or less at the shoulder, though the oribi is slightly taller.
The oribi is a widespread but localised grassland antelope with sandy upperparts, white belly, and a diagnostic black glandular patch below the ears. It is typically seen in pairs or small herds which draw attention to itself with a trademark sneezing alarm call.
Associated exclusively with rocky slopes, the klipspringer (Dutch/Afrikaans for ‘rock jumper’) boasts several adaptations to its niche habitat, notably the unique capacity to walk goat-like on its hoof tips, coarse but hollow fur providing good insulation at high altitude, and binocular vision to help it gauge jumping distances. It has a grizzled grey coat, short horns and an arched back, and monogamous pairs might be observed in suitable habitats throughout Tanzania, notably Lobo in the Serengeti and Manyara’s Rift Valley escarpment.
The distinctive Kirk’s dik-dik has is grizzled grey-brown with prominent white eye rings and a twitchy elongated nose. Almost always seen in pairs, it can be skittish, but will relax if you approach it slowly and wait for things to settle down. Present throughout Tanzania, it is especially common in Arusha, Manyara, Ruaha and the Lerai Forest in Ngorongoro.
The odd man out in a tribe of small hunchbacked antelope associated mainly with tropical forests, the grey duiker is a common resident of wooded savannah, and might be seen anywhere in Tanzania bar forest interiors and deserts. It can be distinguished from other small savannah antelope by the black tuft of hair that sticks up between its horns.
The duiker-like steenbok has red-brown upper parts, clear white underparts, short straight horns, and is normally encountered singly or in pairs, which turn to stone when disturbed (hence its name, which translates as ‘stone buck’). It is common in the Serengeti and surrounds, but rare or absent further south.
The hunchbacked forest duikers are probably the least understood of African antelope, and few tourists will encounter any of five species present in Tanzania. The chestnut Harvey’s red duiker is sometimes observed in coastal scrub in Saadani, and is replaced by the similar Natal red duiker on the south coast. The endangered Ader’s duiker is near-endemic to Zanzibar, where as few as 1,000 individuals survive in Jozani Forest. The larger Abbott’s duiker, following its recent extinction in Kenya, is also now endemic to Tanzania, where it is confined five forested montane ‘islands’, namely Kilimanjaro, Usambara, Udzungwa, Uluguru and Rungwe.