“One of the most impressive aspects of the African wildlife experience
is the presence of up to a dozen different antelopes in the same area.
Yet it was by taking measures to minimize competition
by becoming different species
that such a diverse array of antelopes came to exist in the first place.”
-Robert D. Estes, Safari Companion
People go to Africa thinking I want to see as many lions as possible, or I want to see cheetahs or leopards, and of course they also want to see elephants and giraffes and zebras.
Many will say I want to see the wildebeest and zebra great migration, but that is because they want to witness the spectacular drama that unfolds when these animals decide to cross the Mara river looking for greener pastures. But very few realize, until you actually get there, that there is this fascinating group of animals that absolutely dominates the African continent.
I have yet to meet somebody that fails to be charmed by this vast diverse group of ungulates; their colors, their graceful forms, their very sweets soft brown eyes -although I’m sure they will kick your behind if you try to approach them-and above all their striking horns twisting and curving in an incredible variety of shapes.
I’m talking about the antelopes, and guess what the wildebeest also known as gnu is part of this group. But who are they?
These Old World grazing and browsing hoofed mammals belong to the family Bovidae (order Artiodactyla). Antelopes account for over two-thirds of the approximately 135 species of hollow-horned ruminants (cud chewers) in the family Bovidae, which also includes cattle, sheep, and goats.
And you thought the wildebeest was a thinner cow? Wrong, although it belongs to the same family it actually has more in common with the topi, the impala, and the beautiful oryx among others. They came into existence beginning some 24 million years ago and reached a peak during the last several million years of the Ice Age.
Antelope is not a taxonomic name but a catchall term for an astonishing variety of ruminating ungulates ranging in size from the diminutive royal antelope (2 kg or 4 pounds) to the giant eland (800 kg or 1,800 pounds). Africa, with some 72 species, is the continent of antelopes.
So what is so special about this group, besides their beautiful Baroque and Gothic-like horns, which are not mere decoration in these animals heads and certainly do not belong in people’s houses as souvenirs?
Well, in my mind similar to birds, antelopes represent an eco-evolutionary success. Of course I’m not including in this success the battle of survival against humans, because unfortunately when faced against us, the biggest predator on Earth, all nature is in disadvantage. I’m talking specifically about the capacity of this group to evolve and adapt to an incredible variety of habitats.
In Richard Estes words: “From the deserts to the lowland rainforests, from swamps to mountain moorlands, wherever there is vegetation there are antelopes to eat it. The great diversity of African antelopes reflects the wide variety of habitats available to terrestrial herbivores and the superior ability of ruminants to subdivide these habitats into narrow segments by specializing. Each species is adapted to a particular ecological niche by its size, anatomy, physiology, feeding technique, digestive system, dispersal pattern, and social and reproductive systems, enabling it to exploit a particular set of conditions more efficiently than any other ruminant.”
During my week in the Masai Mara, I had the opportunity to see and observe seven different species in action beginning with the wildebeest which you can actually see running around from the window of the very small plane that takes you to the wildlife park. And on the way to the camp I saw a group of Thomson’s Gazelles the smallest gazelle of the antilopini tribe that are also called Tommys by the locals.
That same afternoon, I saw herds of gorgeous impala which have a tribe of its own and I saw the first antelope I did not only know anything about, but didn’t even know it existed, the beautiful and super intelligent Topi.
Now the big surprise came two days after, while looking for birds we saw this literally miniature antelope which I knew it existed but didn’t imagine it was so small, in some cases smaller than a house cat. Known as Dik-Dik it belong to the Neotragini Tribe also known as the Dwarf Antilope Tribe.
Needless to say that throughout the week I saw many more tommys, impalas, topis and even a couple of more dik-diks (they prefer to roam at night), but I still had the opportunity to see a lonely reedbuck in the marshes and the most impressive site of all, yes on my last game day I saw this huge Eland, really huge and gorgeous! Dixon, my guide said I was really lucky not only it is a very difficult animal to see in that area, but they are usually very shy and immediately escape as you try to approach them. Well this guy not only did not escape but even posed for my camera! What a sight!
To see more pictures of antelopes visit: Africa, Land of Antelopes