They are rare, elusive and thrilling to spot. Can you brag with a sighting of one of South Africa’s rare antelope species? Here are the best places to see them. By Arnold Ras
Many of us head to Wild Card parks and reserves to come face to face with the big and ferocious, but rare antelopes can be just as exciting to encounter. With impressive horns, unique coat patterns and colours, and limited ranges, these animals are sought-after sightings for wildlife aficionados. Why not head out on your own quest with our must-see antelope tick list?
A tell-tale sign that you are indeed looking at a roan antelope, the second largest antelope in Africa, is the white patches in front of the eyes and the white muzzle. For both rams and ewes, the horns curl backwards and their longs ears end in a hairy tassel. When trying to identify antelope species, especially rarer ones, colour can be a great indicator. The roan antelope is so named for its grey-brown coat tinged with red. The mane and beard have black tips. As the picture above suggests, roan antelope prefer grazing in tall grass. In South Africa the species is considered Vulnerable. This gorgeous antelope is mostly active in the morning and late afternoon.
Where to get lucky: Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary
A sight to truly appreciate. South Africa’s smallest national park, Bontebok National Park, is the proud home to this species. Nearing extinction in the 1920s, some 84 bontebok were relocated to the park in 1960 and today the species is bouncing back. The bontebok is not just a beautiful antelope, it also has some wacky habits: during very hot days, you’re likely to spot these animals facing the sun with lowered heads. But are you looking at a bontebok or a blesbok? Pay attention to that characteristic white line – almost as if it was stroked with a paintbrush – from the forehead to the nostrils. In bontebok this blaze is usually unbroken; in blesbok there is a narrow bar of brown between the eyes. Bontebok are a rich dark brown on the flanks and top of the rump while blesbok tend to be reddish brown.
Where to get lucky: Bontebok National Park
That coat is quite reminiscent of a bottle of maple syrup, right? Although the tsessebe’s distribution throughout South Africa is patchy, its unique looks make it easy to pinpoint. The dark face, wide-set horns and distinctive hump on the shoulders are a dead giveaway. They are also fussy eaters… tsessebe dislike environments where they have to compete with bulk grazers. Did you know that they are very fast runners that will outsprint a predator and then stand still to check for a possible pursuit? When young bulls get pushed out of herds at the age of one year, they form bachelor groups. Tsessebe are listed as Endangered in the SA Red Data Book.
Where to get lucky: Marakele National Park
This bushy-tailed antelope with small ears and long, thin neck, is considered endangered in South Africa. Habitat destruction, illegal hunting and inappropriate management are some of the threats it faces. Noticed how long and woolly the coat is? Don’t confuse the oribi with the steenbok – the latter’s coat is smooth and sleek while the oribi’s tends to curl. The oribi is exceptionally alert and will rest on higher ground to keep watch for potential danger. With an average shoulder height of 59cm, the oribi is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful of the smaller antelope species. How can you help conserve the species? Report illegal dog hunting to +27 (0)8 616 72226.
Unlike other antelope they [oribi] don’t flee at the first sniff of an intruder, but lie motionless in the grass, trusting in their camouflage.
– Keri Harvey, Wild Summer 2009
Where to get lucky: Ithala Game Reserve
Visiting the Kruger soon? Make sure you spend a few hours in the west near Pretoriuskop, the area near Punda Maria, or west of Tshokwane. These are the areas likely to produce sable sightings. This antelope is easily identified by its scimitar-shaped horns, glossy black coat and white belly. A dominant sable bull is something to be reckoned with – he can have a harem of up to 20 cows. Unfortunately the status for this beautiful antelope is Vulnerable and numbers in the Kruger National Park are declining. Like most antelope species, the sable eats grass, but also chews on bones to get a mineral kick. Interesting to know that when quenching their thirst, sables prefer wading into water. Majestic, powerful and certainly impressive.
Where to get lucky: Kruger National Park
Sources: Smithers’ Mammals of Southern Africa. A Field Guide. Revised & updated by Peter Apps; Wildlife of Southern Africa. Edited by Vincent Carruthers; Endangered Wildlife Trust.