Image: Annette Price

The eland, an ox-like antelope, is the largest antelope species in Sub-Saharan Africa. They are a sight to behold and one can say that they have a dignified and majestic look to them. They are usually quite shy and run away if they sense danger is near.

The Eland can stand between 150 centimetres to 190 centimetres (approximately 59 -74 inches) at shoulder height. Females (400 – 600 kilograms)(approximately 881 – 1322 pounds) weigh less than males (700 – 1000 kilograms)(approximately 1543 – 2204 pounds). Despite their massive body size, Eland are athletic jumpers and can easily clear fences of 2 metres (approximately 78 inches) if startled.

Eland belong to the spiral-horned antelope family along with the Kudu, Blesbuck, and Nyala. Both male and female Eland have horns. The males are short and thick while the females are long and slender.

The Eland is a herbivore whose diet is a mix of grasses, leaves and fruits. They spend most of their time in sparse forests and savannah grasslands where they feed in the early morning and late afternoons and ruminate and hide from predators during the daytime. They feed during these times when the moisture content is higher in the foliage that they eat. They will also use their hooves to dig up roots and bulbs that are underground to supplement their nutritional needs.

Eland do not have to drink water regularly. They get the moisture that they need from the food that they eat or from simple water conservation techniques. They produce very concentrated urine and dry faecal pellets so that their bodies do not discard unnecessary moisture. They will stand in the shade on very hot days and have the ability to allow their body temperature to rise by a few degrees and then disperse the heat after dark when it is cooler.

If you listen closely to when they walk by, you will hear a distinct clicking sound as they approach. This is thought to come from their hooves, which spread out and click back together under the animal’s great weight. It is believed that this is where the Khoi San people (The Bushmen) of South Africa developed their language from as they have several clicks in their language.

The Khoi San people also value this animal when it comes to their religion and traditions. The Eland is used in many different traditions. Eland fat is used in marriage to anoint the couple getting married. The eland is called upon in prayer by shamans in the bushmen trance dance which is said to give the shaman power. Many bushmen paintings are found in parts of south and southern Africa which will include paintings of Eland, highlighting the importance of this animal in their everyday lives.

Female Eland are a tawny or fawn colour, sometimes going light grey as they get older. They have a small flap of skin under their neck which is known as a “Dewlap”. Male Eland are a darker, blue-grey, turning almost black as they age. Males have a large dewlap. The purpose of the dewlap is to help with thermoregulation in arid habitats. The thick neck on a male Eland give them the power to push other males off-balance during fights when they are looking to breed with females.

During the breeding season females, sub-adults and mature bulls occur together in herds. After the breeding season is over, the males separate from the herds and form bachelor herds with other males. After a gestation period of 9 months, females give birth around the same time. This is a survival technique as the herd will look after and protect the young together. Newborn Eland calves can stand almost immediately after birth and can walk 3 or 4 hours later. During the first two weeks of life, a calf will hide away in long grass and will be visited by its mother during the day so it can suckle on her milk. This period of lying low and hiding allows them time to grow and develop strength before they have to join the herd and move over long distances.

Members of a herd allo-groom (mutual grooming) one another on the head, neck and rump areas, all the places that are hard to reach. They are also very particular about grooming themselves and will regularly rub their heads and bodies against trees. Eland have a symbiotic relationship with cattle egrets, a medium-sized white bird that follows them around as they graze. The cattle egrets benefit from insects kicked up by the antelope as they move through the grass. They also remove parasites and ticks off the antelopes’ bodies.

In search of more reading? Here’s everything you need to know about another antelope found on Lalibela, the Kudu!