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The red hartebeest

14 August 2014

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The red hartebeest Alcelaphus caama was first described scientifically as Antilope caama in 1803 by Geoffrey Saint-Hillaire based on sketches of a specimen that was shot in 1777 near Steynsburg in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa by R J Gordon. It was regarded as a subspecies of the hartebeest Alcelaphus buselaphus of East Africa for a long time but is currently regarded as a separate species. Because Antilope only occurs in India, the genetic name Alcelaphus was coined in 1816 by De Blainville.

The name caama is derived from its Khoikoi name camaa (note the different spelling). The name hartebeest is derived from its Dutch name and probably refers to the shape of the horns when they are viewed from the front. In his diaries Jan van Riebeeck already mentions that Master Pieter shot a hartebeest during a hunting trip north of Paarl. A wood-carving that was done by 1790 by T Bewick also depicts a “hart-beest”. The hartebeest is known as fossils that lived in the past million years and it probably developed from the fossil genus Rabaticeros.

Red hartebeest have smaller hindquarters than the large head and shoulders, with the cows smaller than the bulls. Both sexes have heart-shaped horns and the general coat colour is reddish-brown, although yellowish-fawn and yellowish-brown individuals are also known. There is a characteristic pale yellow to dirty white patch on the buttocks and dark patches from the front of the shoulders down the forelegs. The lower parts of the hind legs from the thighs to the knees, and at times to the hooves, are black. Pre-orbital glands that open in front of the eyes on the skin secrete a wax-like secretion which was prized by the San as medicine.

The red hartebeest only occurs in southern Africa but it has never occurred historically in north-eastern, western and southern Namibia. It has now, however, been introduced widely in southern Africa. It was already present historically in the Western and Eastern Cape provinces of South Africa as is evident from the diary of Jan van Riebeeck and the specimen that was shot by and sketched for R J Gordon in 1777. It is limited in its distribution because it cannot cope with intense cold.

Surprisingly little is known scientifically about the red hartebeest. However, it occurs largely in semi-arid regions in South Africa in grasslands near wetlands and occasionally in open woodlands. It avoids dense bushveld and drinks some 11 litres of water every two days. It is a selective grazer but will also eat browse in the early summer before the first rains. Overall its diet consists of 75 per cent grass, 20 per cent browse and 5 per cent wild fruits although it may eat more browse at times.

Bulls defend a territory of 10 to 30 ha and the range of a family herd varies from 2000 to 10 000 ha. Red hartebeest usually form herds of 20 to 30 animals but may aggregate in herds of up to 300 animals. However, in Botswana up to 10 000 red hartebeest may aggregate at times to follow recent rainfall. Such aggregations consists of many smaller herds that break away again once new grazing is reached. The territorial bulls each claim a family herd consisting of adult cows, young animals and calves, while bachelor herds also occur. Most activity occurs early in the morning and shade is sought in the middle of the day. Excessive moisture loss is prevented by increasing the body heat and by panting. The red hartebeest is one of the most agile antelopes of Africa and run with a springy gait when it flees at speed.

Mating occurs from February to April and most calves are born from the end of September to November before the rainy season starts. The cow has two inguinal mammae and becomes sexually mature at an age of 18 months as opposed to 30 months in a bull. However, the bull only mates when he becomes territorial at an age of 96 to 120 months and the cow when she is 40 months old. A cow’s first calf is born when she is 48 months old and a population therefore increases slowly. The gestation period is around 240 days and the cow will eat the afterbirth to prevent predators from finding her calf. A single calf weighing 30 kg at birth is born and it is hidden until it is a week old and strong enough to join the herd. Calves start to nibble at grass when they are two weeks old but only wean when they are eight months old. The life expectancy in the wild is around 15 years and the mean population growth rate is 23 per cent, although it varies from 20 to 30 per cent. Lions and spotted hyaenas are responsible for the death of most calves.

Reference:

Skinner, J D and C T Chimimba (Eds) 2005. The mammals of the southern African subregion, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 651 - 653.

Article by Prof J du P Bothma

 

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