Wildebeests, or gnus, are a large species of African antelope. With their curved horns, sloping backs, striped bodies, manes and fluffy beards, they are rather odd-looking creatures. They are often described as looking like thin, muscular cows.
The name Gnu, pronounced ‘new’ or ‘g-new’, has two theories of origin. The first is that ‘gnu’ originates from the Khoikhoi people’s name for wildebeest which is ‘t’gnu’. The second theory is that the name originates from the San people’s name for the wildebeest, ‘!nu’. Wildebeest is an Afrikaans name that translates to ‘wild beast’.
There are two species of wildebeest – the black wildebeest and the blue wildebeest. Lalibela is home to the black wildebeest.
Wildebeest are the largest of all the antelope species. The black wildebeest is smaller than the blue wildebeest, weighing between 110 kg to 157 kg (242 lbs. to 346 lbs.) Males grow to 2 metres (6.5 ft) in length and 1.2 m (4 ft.) in height. Females grow to 1.15 m (3.7 ft) in height.
Black wildebeest also have a white tail, which is why they are also referred to as the white-tailed gnu. Mature males are actually brown in colour, but it so dark that it appears black, hence the name. Females are a slightly lighter brown colour.
Wildebeests have large heads with wide nostrils and a tuft of stiff black fur / hair on top of their muzzle. They also have a black beard, a mane on the back of their neck, and a long fur fringe running underneath their neck to their forelegs.
Both males and females have horns, however the males’ horns tend to be heavier and thicker. Their horns grow forwards and downwards before curving sharply up. Calves’ horns begin growing straight up and then curve from about 9 months of age.
Habitat & Distribution
Black wildebeest are endemic to South Africa, eSwatini and Lesotho. They are found in large populations in South Africa’s Northern Cape, Free State and Limpopo provinces. They have come close to extinction due to hunting from humans but have been reintroduced to the Western Cape and Eastern Cape.
Black wildebeest are most often found in the Karoo and grasslands where they have access to water. They prefer short grass for two reasons: it is easy to feed on and allows them better visibility of potential predators. Open habitat with good visibility is also key to their reproductive behaviour – territorial males need clear views of their territories in order to breed.
Black wildebeest are not fussy grazers but they do prefer short grasses. Their diet consists mainly of grass, 93% in fact. The remainder of their diet is made up of Karoo bushes and phorbs. When they graze they can move up to 500m away from shade and water. They are attracted to sandy grassvelds on south-facing slopes.
Wildebeests’ most prominent predators are lion, leopard, hyena and crocodile. Lions tend to target the adult wildebeest, while leopards and hyenas target the calves. Crocodiles rather brutally target the old, sick and young wildebeest when they drink water, dragging them into the water and drowning them.
Black wildebeest live in herds which provides greater protection against predators. Wildebeest calves are very impressively able to walk and run within minutes after birth. This is extremely valuable to their survival because if the herd comes under the attack of predators, even the calves are able to escape with the herd.
Reproduction & Family Life
Black wildebeest mating season occurs from March to April. Babies are born from November until January after a gestation period of 8.5 months. Calves are fully independent at approximately 6 months old. Females first mate at 16 months and males start mating at 3 years.
They tend to form breeding herds of ten to sixty animals, and within each of these groups they form three social groups: the female adults, sub-adults and calves, the bachelor herd of adult and sub-adult males, and the territorial adult bull.
The bachelor herds tend to move around more, whilst the female herds are more strongly attached to their home ranges. Once the bull calves reach one year old, the territorial bull will chase them into the bachelor herd.
Black wildebeest used to roam Southern Africa’s grasslands in hundreds of thousands before human hunting almost drove them to extinction in the late 1800’s. However, thanks to the successful implementation of conservation strategies, more than 18,000 black wildebeest occur throughout Southern Africa today, ranking them as ‘Least Concerned’ by the IUCN, with their population continuously increasing.