One of my most favourite antelope has to be the waterbuck. These antelope can be seen often at Londolozi and almost look out of place with their shaggy coats. As the latter part of the waterbuck’s name suggests, they are largely associated and dependent on water and are highly prone to dehydration. Today I am going to shed a little bit of light on these magnificent animals and what makes them different. Due to their high fibre diet, and body mass like most animals largely consisting of water, they need to drink frequently, especially during the drier months. Furthermore, waterbuck’s dependency on water means they are rarely further than a few kilometres from a water source and may also readily flee towards the water as a defence strategy when trying to avoid predation, which is a rather unique characteristic of an antelope.
Their Latin name is Kobus ellipsiprymnus. Kobus refers to the genus of the Waterbuck which contains six species of African antelopes, all of which are associated with marshes, floodplains, or other grassy areas near water. They are sexually dimorphic, with females being smaller and lacking the horns of the males. The ellipsiprymnus is possibly my favourite part of their name. Ellipse is of Greek origin from the word ‘ellipes’ which translates to a regular oval shape that can be seen on their rear.
The characteristic white ring on the waterbuck’s behind can only be attributed to a follow-me sign for the other family members. However, that may just be our way of trying to explain this unusual feature found on the waterbuck. The family structure of waterbuck is rather intriguing. Bulls are highly territorial, establishing a territory around water sources. Water being a finite resource and therefore, inevitably leads to other bulls having to move into a dominant bull’s territory. The dominant bull allows for this to happen as long as the non-territorial bull is submissive, in which case the submissive male will be allowed to drink. The females associate with each other in a herd of up to ten. The females move around into various bulls’ territories within their home range as they seek out the resources such as food and water. The bull with the most favourable territory and in turn the most favourable resources will then be visited more frequently and therefore is more likely to have mating rights with these females. The bull will therefore try and herd the female group keeping them in his domain for as long as possible increasing the chances of mating with her, aptly termed a harem.
The female has a day of oestrus and this will be communicated to the male through olfactory scent which is left in her urine. When she is on her day of oestrus, the present dominant male, who will be at least 6 years of age, will mate with her at roughly 30-minute intervals. After 9 months the expectant females are found in thickets a few days prior to birthing. Interestingly, a waterbuck often calves first thing in the morning as she will give birth in the same place each time. The waterbuck calf takes up to 30 minutes to be competent enough on their feet and within the day can run if need be. The use of the thickets is vital, as the calves are concealed for 2-4 weeks. During this time the mother will allow her calf to suckle at 5-minute intervals, 3 times a day providing them with adequate nutrition to sustain their rapid growth.
After a month the calf is still relatively vulnerable but no longer seeks refuge in thickets. The female has to sneak off at times from the calf so that they do not follow her until they are more competent to survive without hiding. When the female feels the calf is ready to associate and keep up with the rest of the herd, she signals to the calf to follow her. This is done by the lifting of her tail which is a unique communication of an antelope. After 6 to 8 months the calf is then weaned from suckling and soon associates with the similarly aged calves from the other females in the herd.
Lastly, and possibly my favourite part of seeing waterbuck is their striking long hair that protrudes from their neck. This is the time of year when heading out first thing in the morning provides the most exquisite soft, golden light that glimmers through their long tufts of hair. Their coarse coat slightly erected from the cold night before, leads to a breathtaking sight of this unique antelope. I can’t help but marvel at this seemingly common antelope, and in turn recognise the depth of their beauty beyond a brief sighting.