Antelopes may be widespread and prevalent across the continent, but they are not immune to habitat changes, most wrought by human hand, throughout Africa. The roan and sable antelopes, for example, are considered endangered in the limited ranges they still occupy. The blue antelope, a close cousin of the roan, vanished in the 18th century, making it the first large mammal to go extinct in historical times. On a daily basis, antelopes are forced to survive alongside their mortal enemies: cheetahs, jackals, lions, hyenas, leopards, hunting dogs and, now, humans.
In comparison with Africa's bigger and stronger animals, like the mighty lion or fierce rhino, many tend to underestimate antelopes. But the bushmen of Africa, who are so well attuned to the rhythms of the natural world, have discerned subtle qualities in the eland, the largest of Africa's antelopes. This animal has a special place in a bushman's spiritual life, and he believes that the noble animal can connect him to God. Elands are considered to be an animal endowing peace, well-being, healing and prosperity. The eland is almost invariably represented in bushman rock art throughout southern Africa.
Africa is home to 11 tribes and 75 species of antelopes, and South Africa alone hosts 29 antelope species, more than anywhere else in Africa. On any African safari, you are almost guaranteed to spot several of the region's antelopes. Here is a brief introduction of what you'll see, and where:
Duiker Antelopes: The small common duiker – adults reach just 45 pounds (20 kg) – represents the duiker tribe, technically known as the Cephalophinae subfamily. They have long legs, flat backs and relatively large eyes. Their horns sit upright and appear only in males. Duikers range throughout the tropical rainforests of central and western Africa, and live in forest and dense bush, where they feed on leaves, twigs, fruits, flowers and seeds. They sometimes spice up their diet with small birds, caterpillars and lizards.
Dwarf Antelopes: In Southern Africa, the Neotragini tribe of dwarf antelopes is comprised of three species: the steenbok, the klipsringer and kirk's dik dik. The steenbok is a small reddish antelope with big round ears, a small tail, slender and long legs, and well-shaped hindquarters. They are well distributed throughout southern Africa.
Steenboks inhabit open country, including the grasslands and scattered bushlands of southern and eastern Africa. They feed on leaves and shoots, as well as seeds, fruits and grass. Steenboks are territorial and, like most small antelopes, are largely monogamous. They are, however, more likely to be found singly than in pairs. The steenbok is largely nocturnal and spends most of the day under grassy cover.
The Kirk's dik dik is another arid antelope, characterized by its pointed and mobile snout, hairy muffle with slit nostrils, large eyes and prominent erectile crest. They weigh an average of 11-13 pounds (5-6 kg) and their horns are ridged and slant backwards. They live in a variety of habitats throughout eastern and south-western Africa, provided there is good cover, but generally avoid tall grasses that may obstruct their view.
Klipspringer Antelopes: A small antelope, weighing in at just 31 pounds (14 kgs), the klipspringer lives on rocky areas and cliffs. Their hooves are well adapted to steep and rocky terrain – a food source and refuge from predators. This species is well distributed from eastern Africa down to the tip of South Africa.
Gazelles: Comprised of 19 species, gazelles are one of the most diverse and largest antelope tribes. They enjoy the widest distribution, ranging from South Africa across Asia, into Siberia and China. They are slender, mid-sized antelopes built for speed, with long, evenly developed limbs, a level back and long neck. In almost all species, both sexes have horns that are strongly ridged and S-shaped.
Of all 19 species, the springbok is the gazelle's principal representative in Southern Africa, where it is found in most parks throughout the region. Springboks are mostly associated with their joyous jumping displays, especially in celebration of the rains. They are prolific sprinters and can reach speeds of up to 50 mph (80 kph), and are honoured in as the national symbol of South Africa. In fact, the South African national rugby team is proudly named after this agile antelope.
Reduncini Antelopes: This Southern African antelope tribe is comprised of reedbucks, kob and waterbuck. The reduncini is a close-knit tribe with only two genera and about eight species, of which six are geographically paired. Thus the waterbuck, lechwe and kob are so genetically close that in captivity, they interbreed and produce viable hybrids. The reedbuck, especially the mountain reedbuck and common reedbuck, is the most common in the region.
Rhebok Antelopes: These mid-sized antelopes have long necks, bulbous noses, long and narrow ears, and upright, spike-like horns, which are found only in males. They are covered in short, rabbit-like fur in varying shades of grey, and their legs feature a dark stripe on the lower front sides. Rheboks are gregarious and territorial, and herds consist of 1-15 females, juveniles and a single adult male. They are found only in South Africa and typically occur in grassland habitats extending to the coastal belt of the Cape region up to almost sea level.
Horse Antelopes: Technically known as Hippotragini, this subfamily features large antelopes with horse-like bodies. Their leading representative in southern Africa is the oryx, a large level-backed antelope with short neck, deep chest and long limbs. Males are heavier than females and have thicker necks and longer horns. Oryx are considered the most perfectly desert-adapted large mammal, and are capable of living in waterless habitats. Only very few other hoofed animals survive in such habitats. African oryx species include the Beisa oryx, mostly found in northern east Africa; the fringe-eared oryx of southeast Africa; and the gemsbok, exclusively found in southern Kalahari.
Nyala Antelopes: This unique species is confined to southern Africa and belongs to the antelope tribe Tragelaphines, which also includes the bushbuck, kudu and eland. Nyalas have spiral horns with vertical stripes and the males are markedly different from females in body form and structure. Male nyalas are far larger than females, reaching up to 250 pounds (114 kg) to the females' 127 pounds (58 kg). Nyalas prefer riverside thickets, dense brush and the fringes of forest, and are almost entirely confined to the Lowveld of the southern savannah (the Mozambique coastal plain). The most popular places to see them are Hluhluwe Reserve and Kruger National Park.
Kudu Antelopes: The kudu is especially noted for its spectacular spiral horns, which give the animal a rather solid appearance. Greater kudu, one of the largest kudu species, have horns that can reach a length of 72 inches. In parts of southern Africa, these horns are used as musical instruments and symbolic ritual objects.
Eland Antelopes: Elands are the largest of Africa's antelopes, measuring 70 inches (178 cm) at the shoulder and weighing up to 2,100 pounds (950 kg). Both male and female elands sport horns, which on males can reach an impressive 50 inches (127 cms). Elands can live in varying habitats, including semi-desert, miombo woodlands, grasslands, and the acacia savannah.
Hartebeest Antelopes: This large, grassland antelope species is found widely throughout Southern Africa. Among antelopes, the hartebeest is one of the fastest and most resilient runners. This gift comes in very handy, as it is rather sedentary and therefore easy to hunt. The hartebeest is relatively large, weighing in at 350 pounds (160 kgs). They thrive in open plains and medium to tall grasslands. The wildebeest and topi are similar in many ways to the hartebeest.