Wildebeests – what’s with all the hate?
After spending several weeks in the bush, I have become more and more aware of how unappreciated gnus, or “wildebeests” are. Everyone calls them dumb and ugly, and safari vehicles do not bother to stop for pictures. So what is with all the hate? Is it just because they are so common? I find them kind of fascinating. They are basically built like a horse with a humpback, have a long face and horns. I think they are pretty interesting, so I thought I would do some research and write about them so my readers can appreciate this species a little more.
The Afrikaans name “wildebeest” (otherwise known as “wild beast” or “wild cow”) originated from its “menacing appearance presented by its large head, shaggy mane, pointed beard, and sharp, curved horns.” The word “menacing” sounds interestingly intriguing to me, not boring. Wildebeests are actually members of the antelope family, although their physical aspect makes them look more bovine or equine. Unlike other antelopes, both male and female wildebeests grow horns, and they are active in both daytime and nighttime because they are constantly grazing grasslands. They do not seem to mind the game vehicle very much until it stops (but that does not stop them from sometimes completely blocking the way and pretty much forcing the vehicle to stop). I guess this is why some see them as stupid, because they cannot seem to make up their minds on whether they are afraid of us or not.
During my time here in South Africa with Youth 4 African Wildlife (Y4AW), I got the opportunity to go on a bush walk. We came across a big herd of wildebeests and it impressed me how attentive they all were of us. They did not run away at any point, they all just stood there as a pact and practically stared us down until we walked out of sight. I cannot really say wildebeests scare me, I do not consider them a scary or dangerous animal, but in this occasion they really did kind of intimidate me. I feel as is they do not know the power they could possibly exert if they really wanted to. They could be a really aggressive menace with that appearance, size and horns, but it is as if they choose not to. They can reach up to 8 feet in length, stand 4.5 feet tall at the shoulders, and they are quite hefty at approximately 275 kilograms (can you imagine that size and weight coming at you?).
Wildebeests take part in the amazing northward migration, which attracts countless tourists every year. This is a spectacular event in which literally millions of animals migrate in search of greener pastures. Migration is dictated by weather patterns, but most commonly takes place between May and June. This migration is physically exhausting and a lot of wildebeests are lost because the masses are simply too big. The will swim across rivers and lakes in such large quantities that many calves and even adults become injured and lost.
These animals can be quite relentless and active when it comes to their behavior and personalities. Male wildebeests become very territorial, especially during breeding season. “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.” Bulls will defend their territory just like many antelopes do; in the typical fighting position knocking their heads at the base of the horns. During my time here in South Africa I unfortunately have not gotten the opportunity to see wildebeests face off against each other, but I have gotten to see other antelopes, such as waterbuck and bushbuck, fighting, and it is pretty exciting. You can hear their horns bumping against each other from pretty far away!
When it comes to birthing, wildebeests are not like other antelopes, though. Female wildebeests seek to give birth in the middle of the herd, not in a secluded place. Wildebeest calves are not altricial, which means that they are up and walking within minutes after being birthed. This is a very important characteristic of their survival, because they cannot afford to be vulnerable in the bush. This species is a very attractive meal to larger and stronger predators, such as lions and cheetahs. It is important for them to be attentive and somewhat independent soon after being born (in terms of being able to walk, run, see and hear). Another interesting characteristic is that the majority of the females in a herd will give birth within the same 2 to 3 week window, thus reducing the amount of calves in an extended period of time. This is an interesting, but totally rational, modification because it is better to have all the calves at once and protect them, rather than have a few calves over a long period of time. This actually increases the amount of survivors.
This internship is, of course, mostly focused on threatened species, specifically lions, rhinos and elephants. An interesting fact that I found about wildebeests is the fact that their numbers have actually increased tremendously with time. In 1960 they were estimated at around 250,000 individuals, and that number has risen to about 1.5 million today! Gnus are very interesting because they are unlike any other animal in the bush. Some people even refer to them as “the clowns of the savanna” because their appearance is so disproportionate. It is almost as if they were made from spare parts of other animals! I strongly believe they are exceedingly unappreciated, because there is no other species like them. If they had gone extinct and we could only see their pictures in textbooks, I am positive that mankind today would look at them as they do a mammoth, “WOW, look at this animal, it is so weird; it looks like a mix of different animals! I would have loved to see one in person.” We need to realize that species are going extinct every single day and we need to appreciate the ones we have the pleasure of cohabitating with currently. Simply because they are common here should not mean that they are worthless.
– Ana (Anilu) Nagel