The first animals that you will see on safari will almost certainly be antelope. These occur on the open plains. Although there are many different species, it is not difficult to distinguish between them. For presentation purposes they have been divided into the larger antelopes, which stand about 120 cm or more at the shoulder, and the smaller ones, about 90 cm or less. They are all ruminant plains animals, herbivores like giraffe and the zebra, but they have keratin covered horns which makes them members of the family Bovidae. They vary greatly in appearance, from the small dik-diks to the large eland, and once you have learnt to recognize the different sets of horns, identification of species should not be too difficult.
The largest of all the antelopes is the eland (Taurotragus oryx) which stands 175-183 cm at the shoulder. It is cow-like in appearance, with a noticeable dewlap and shortish spiral horns present in both sexes. The general colour varies from greyish to fawn, sometimes with a rufous tinge, with narrow white stripes on the sides of the body. It occurs in herds of up to 30 in a wide variety of grassy and mountainous habitats. Even during the driest periods of the year the animals appear in excellent condition. Research has shown that they travel large distances in search of food and that they will eat all sorts of tough woody bushes and thorny plants.
Not quite as big, but still reaching 140-153 cm at the shoulder, is the greater kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) which prefers fairly thick bush, sometimes in quite dry areas. You are most likely to see them in the northern areas of Etosha National Park and in the much smaller Mahango Game Park, although you have just as much chance of seeing one at dusk by the side of the road in central or northern Namibia. Although nearly as tall as the eland it is a much more slender and elegant animal altogether. Its general colour also varies from greyish to fawn and it has several white stripes running down the sides of the body. Only the male carries horns, which are very long and spreading, with only two or three twists along the length of the horn. A noticeable and distinctive feature is a thick fringe of hair which runs from the chin down the neck. Greater kudu usually live in family groups of not more than half a dozen individuals, but occasionally larger herds up to about 30 can be seen.
The roan antelope (Hippoptragus equinus) and sable antelope (Hippotragus niger) are similar in general shape, though the roan is somewhat bigger, being 140-145 cm at the shoulder, compared to the 127-137 cm of the sable. In both species, both sexes carry ringed horns which curve backwards, and these are particularly long in the sable. There is a horse-like mane present in both animals. The sable is usually glossy black with white markings on the face and a white belly. The female is often a reddish brown in colour. The roan can vary from dark rufous to a reddish fawn and also has white markings on the face. The black males of the sable are easily identified, but the brownish individuals can be mistaken for the roan. Look for the tufts of hair at the tips of the rather long ears of the roan (absent in the sable). The Roan generally is found in open grassland. Both the roan and the sable live in herds. Khaudum Game Reserve is home to the largest roan population in Namibia. There are also small herds in Etosha which were originally transported from Khaudum. Sable can be seen in the Waterberg Plateau Park as well as Khaudum and the Caprivi Region; attempts to introduce them to Etosha have failed.
Another antelope with a black and white face is the gemsbok (Oryx gazella), which stands 122 cm at the shoulder. They are large creatures with a striking black line down the spine and a black stripe between the coloured body and the white underparts. The head is white with further black markings. This is not an animal you would confuse with another. Their horns are long, straight and sweep back behind their ears – from face-on they look V-shaped. The female also has horns but overall the animal is of a slightly lighter build. One of the lasting images of Namibia is a picture of a single gemsbok with the sand dunes of Sossusvlei as a backdrop. Visitors to Etosha will see large herds close to the waterholes, you will also see gemsbok in the Namib-Naukluft desert, western Damaraland and the Unaib Delta in the Skeleton Coast National Park.
The wildebeest or gnu (Connochaetes taurinus) is a large animal about 132 cm high at the shoulder, looking rather like an American bison in the distance. The impression is strengthened by its buffalo-like horns (in both sexes) and humped appearance. The general colour is blue grey with a few darker stripes down the side. It has a noticeable beard and long mane. They are often found grazing with herds of zebra. Blue wildebeest migrate into Etosha during the summer months in search of fresh grasslands, their numbers have been greatly reduced by the construction of game fences and attacks from predators around artificial water points.
The common waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus) stands at about 122-137 cm at the shoulder, it has a shaggy grey-brown skin which is very distinctive. The males have long, gently curving horns which are heavily ringed. There are two species which can be distinguished by the white mark on their buttocks. On the common waterbuck there is a clear half ring on the rump and round the tail. In the other species, the Defassa waterbuck, the ring is a filled-in white patch on the rump. Although they no longer occur in Mudumu National Park, due to hunting, herds of waterbuck can be seen in the remote marshlands and flood plains of Mamili National Park.
There are three other species of antelope that you can expect to see in the wetlands of Caprivi: red lechwe, sitatunga and puku. The red lechwe (Kobus leche leche) is a medium-sized antelope standing at about 100 cm at the shoulder. It is bright chestnut in colour, with black markings on the legs. Only the males have horns. The horns are relatively thin, rising upwards before curving outwards and backwards forming a double curve. Only the sitatunga is known to favour the aquatic environment more than the lechwe. In the past, herds of over 1000 were recorded, but hunting and the destruction of habitat has seen their numbers fall to less than a tenth of the numbers 50 years ago. In Namibia you can still be sure of seeing lechwe along the Kavango or Kwando rivers in the Caprivi Region. They tend to feed on grass and water plants, favouring water meadows. As the river levels rise and fall so the herds migrate to the greenest pastures. All of the large cats as well as wild dog and hyena prey upon the lechwe. They are unable to move fast on dry land, so when they feel threatened they will take refuge in shallow pools – if needs be, they are very good swimmers.
Puku (Kobus adenota vardoni) favour a similar habitat to the red lechwe, but you are only likely to see them in small numbers in Mamili National Park. They have a coat of golden yellow long hair and stand at about 100 cm at the shoulder. Their underparts are white and there are no black markings on the legs. The horns are thick and short with heavy rings, only the males have horns. They usually live in small groups of five to 10 animals, but during the mating season the males gather in groups and will strongly defend their respective territories.
The chances of spotting the sitatunga (Tragelaphus sekei) are rare since this species of antelope favours swampy areas where there are thick reed beds to hide in. It is the largest of the aquatic antelope standing at 115 cm at the shoulder. If you only catch a glimpse of the animal you can be sure it was a sitatunga if the hindquarters were higher than the forequarters. Their coat is long and shaggy with a grey brown colour, they have thin white stripes similar to those of the bushbuck. The horns are long, twisted and swept back. They have long hooves which are highly adapted to soft, marshy soils. When frightened they will enter the water and submerge entirely, with just their snout breaking the surface. This is a very shy antelope which few visitors will see, but if you spend some time at a quiet location by the river you may be rewarded with a sighting as they quietly move through the reedbeds. Mamili and Mahango are the best locations for viewing the sitatunga.
The red hartebeest (Alcephalus caama) stands about 127-132 cm at the shoulder. It has an overall rufous appearance with a conspicuous broad light patch on the lower rump. The back of their neck, chin, and limbs have traces of black. Small herds can be seen at Hardap Dam, Khaudum and Etosha National Park. The hartebeest has the habit of posting sentinels, which are solitary animals who stand on the top of termite mounds keeping a watch out for predators. If you see an animal on its ‘knees’ digging the earth with its horns then it is marking its territory – they are very territorial in behaviour. Their slightly odd appearance is caused by its sloping withers and a very long face. They have short horns which differ from any other animal, they are situated on a bony pedicel, a backward extension of the skull which forms a base.
Finally, you have a good chance of seeing the nyala on your travels. The nyala (Tragelaphus angasi) stands about 110 cm at the shoulder. Although large in appearance it is of slender build and has a narrow frame. This is disguised, in part, by a long shaggy coat, dark brown in colour with a mauve tinge. The lower legs are a completely different colour, light sandy brown. When fully grown the horns have a single open curve sweeping backwards. Look out for a conspicuous white streak of hair along the back. Another feature which helps identification is a white chevron between the eyes and a couple of white spots on the cheek. The female is very different, firstly she is significantly smaller and does not have horns. Her coat is more orange than brown in colour and the white stripes on the body are very clear.
Their numbers have been threatened in the past and their status has been one of endangered. You should consider yourself fortunate if you enjoy a clear sighting on safari. They like to live in dense bush and the ‘savanna veld’. You will always find them close to water, which makes the task of finding them a little easier once you have located the waterholes. They are known to gather in herds of up to 30, but a small family group is more likely. One interesting aspect of their life is that they are almost exclusively browsers. Research has shown their diet to consist of wild fruits, pods, twigs and leaves. They will eat fresh young tender grass shoots after the first rains.