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.
Amazing video. Lovely blog.
Two incredible wildebeest experiences: First was similar to the one you describe with wild dogs frequently charging the herd with the herd responding similarly. Second was experiencing the Great Migration in Tanzania, Relentless grunting of the thousands as they marched day and night.
Very interesting! I do like wildebeest and have always found them an interesting species to study. They are not stupid at all indeed! Do you kbow if white-tailed wildebeest still exist?
Great story! I actually like the looks of the Wildebeest!
Great story. Never thought they would hold off these predators
Kirst, thanks for the great story and education. It’s nice to see the wildebeest get some credit that they are due!
A really impressive video. Were the wildebeest able to defend their young ones or did the dogs catch one of them in the end? Life in the wilderness can be quite difficult, to put it politely.
Tracker Sersant tells a marvelous story about a Wildebeest, complete with sound effects. Get him to act it out for you!
What an incredible story about the wildebeest. They are not the most beautiful animal, but they are a force to be reckoned with, when defending their calves. Having those wild dogs and hyenas surrounding them must have been a gruelling site to see. Very glad they stood there ground and protected their young and themselves. Good story thanks Kirst.
Kirst, I loved all the photo
Thanks for the post on Wildebeests Kirst! I live the way you set up the premise that they are “stupid,” only to tear it down by their obvious natural intelligence. As an aside, I think their crazy “look” is actually pretty cool. Almost an abstract artist’s rendition of a cow mixed with an antelope – Picasso-esque, perhaps!!
Yes, definitely not a good looking animal but they always seemed to work as a team protecting their newborns. The collective noun for wildebeests is one we would never guess and seems a stretch-even stranger than a murder of crows. Good article.
Firstly, I must say … I do not find Wildebeest unattractive. They have a very unique beauty
And so happy to know they are also quite intelligent! Another amazing creation!
Kirst really enjoyed this account and the background to the Gnu!!💕 It is so true that we look at them as being rather dull animals and I now have a deep respect for their tenacity after watching your footage. Fantastic 👌🙏💕
Amazing video – how long did this go on for, and which gave up first, the wild dogs or the hyenas? Kirst, I can see with your writing skills you’re going to be a regular blog poster!
Very interesting blog thank you.
Appearances often color opinions that are often totally wrong.
Wonderful story……all animals in the wild are as intelligent as they need to be to survive in their environment….we cannot measure their intelligence based on human ideals of intelligence!
I have heard wildebeest being described as the ‘clowns of the bushveld’, so this post is definitely a nice change of pace. They are without a doubt an enormously successful species.
Thanks for highlighting the antelope on Londolozi. A lot of people would enjoy more of the same. Kudu. Waterbuck. Nyala, ect. just saying there’s more to the reserve than predators.
Incredible to see them protect that baby against all the odds! What a sight that must have been!