Let us say a few words, at least,
in praise of the hardy wildebeest.
Instead of one name, they have two:
the oldest ‘beest is always gnu.
– Ogden Nash
There is a common notion which suggests that wildebeest are stupid.
It is one that I used to ascribe to, with little thought and no inquisition. So, what exactly is it about wildebeest that makes them ‘stupid’?
Firstly – and I guess superficially speaking – wildebeest are, for lack of a better term, ‘unfortunate looking’.
Their rather disproportionate build – a long face, wild eyes and uncomfortably long eyelashes, short stubby horns, bedraggled beard and brindled sides, a sloping back and scrawny legs, and an unexpectedly impressive tail – create a rather unfortunate and unattractive looking antelope.
The term ‘Wildebeest’ translated from Dutch means ‘wild-cattle’. And cattle are often viewed as rather gormless.
The name gnu originates from the rather unique and monotonous call given off by territorial bulls which advertises territory to others.
The ‘herd or group mentality’ and ‘no-man-is-left-behind’ mindset often employed by these animals when a threat is encountered can result in the herd dispersing based on the actions of one, sometimes spooked for no reason at all. This is exacerbated; after the panic has subsided, the wildebeest often walk, with their heads bobbing, straight back to the place they initially ran away from!
Their apparent curiosity outweighs their survival instinct. Once a predator is detected, the wildebeest will alarm at it, may even take one or two steps back and then, head upright, proceed directly TOWARDS the predator itself. Definitely not the smartest approach to avoid being eaten.
Or so it would seem.
The unofficial collective noun of ‘an implausibility of gnus’ surely only adds to this connotation of stupidity. This collective noun given by James Lipton in 1968 somehow portrays the unlikely survival and reproductive success of what we deem as implausible and improbable species.
Maybe there are a few more you could add on. However, it’s this idea of an implausibility which is what struck me most one evening…
Whilst following a pack of nine wild dogs as the sun began to set, we weaved our way through thickets and open grasslands trying to keep up with them. As we covered some distance the sum of ten hyenas gathered on their pursuit, trailing closely behind, patiently observing the pack’s movements in anticipation of an easy meal.
We made our way through a Combretum thicket to an open area where a startled herd of wildebeest stood, feeding loosely together. Immediately the ears of the wild dogs went flat on their heads as they fanned out in a circular approach, surrounding the now huddling and alarming wildebeest. With the wild dogs and hyenas combined, nineteen individual predators surrounded this herd in a matter of seconds with a squeals and whines filling the air as the wild dogs yearned for their meal, and hyenas lurked in the background.
At the epicentre of this all were the newly born, fawn-coloured wildebeest calves clustered together, surrounded by the adults which were facing outwards. In a matter of moments, there was this incredible structured armour of unified wildebeest. The wild dogs frenzied around them hoping to disperse the adults, probing at the herd the next stage of defence ensued from the wildebeest.
It is as if they each had a specific position or role, as one or two dogs made their advances towards them, at least two wildebeest would match this advance at full speed and chase it away. Then stop not more than ten metres from the herd, retreating instantly to join the line of defence again. The next wave of wildebeest would meet the wild dogs’ next attack and again stop and regroup.
Implausible in my mind – wildebeest. How can these antelopes within seconds organise such an organised defensive strategy? The ebb and flow of this encounter was breathtaking and I knew just then, that the odds were actually in the favour of the ‘stupid’ wildebeest and not the nineteen predators that milled about.
Although ‘unfortunate looking’ to our superficial human eye, their group mentality and survival instinct fended off the threat. Not so stupid after all, but rather an animal that illustrates reproductive success by protecting their young in order for the species to survive.
Ironic, then too, how wildebeest are often used as indictors of the veld condition and ecosystem as a whole. An implausible animal… yet a successful species in its own unique and possibly unorthodox way.