Unless you've been to Africa I think the tendency is to think that all the animals lions eat are pretty much the same; fast running herbivores who spend most of their day eating grass. I have to say I had no idea how many different species of antelope there are, but when I went to my first volunteer project I was sent a list of 10 different species to learn! I couldn't believe it! I think to truly understand the richness and diversity of Africa you have to understand those at the bottom of the food-chain, the animals that make Africa work.
So! Here I am to introduce you to a few of the species I have come across, and to show you just how diverse they really are.
These lovely ladies are a common sight in Africa, and probably the antelope that you are most used to seeing on TV! These are Impala, one of the most successful creatures you can find. Part of the secret to their success is their breeding scheme, in which all of the females get pregnant around the same time, and all the young are born together. This means that, whilst huge numbers are killed off quickly, being amongst so many you have a much better chance of survival!
This Waterbuck may be one of the prettiest of the antelopes, but it is by far the smelliest! This is due to the Waterbuck defence mechanism of running into water to escape predation; because of this they have developed an oily secretion which allows their coat to dry quickly... and it stinks! I've heard it said that if you watch a lion feeding on one of these you can catch a look of distaste pass across it's face. Interestingly it is the only antelope that humans cannot consume, because the oil taints the meat and makes it so distasteful!
The Greater Kudu is one of the most magnificent of the antelope with horns that can grow to around 1.8 metres in length! Kudu's are browsers, and so spend most of their time in thick bush eating leaves and branches. This is also why they have the line markings on their back which acts as disruptive camouflage... When they stand still amongst the trees, despite their enormous horns, they can be very difficult to spot!
Gemsbok, also known as Oryx, are one of the strangest looking antelope, with the most incredible adaptation! Since they are often found in some of the hottest deserts in the world they have evolved a cooling system with imagination! Before their blood travels to their brain it passes through a blood vessel situated at the nostril allowing it to cool by a degree or two; therefore making the brain believe the body is cooler than it really is! Sneaky!
So many people say to me that they think Red Hartebeest are ugly antelope, but I really don't know what they are talking about! I think they are rather handsome! Hartebeests usually form herds watched over by a territorial bull, who will stand on higher ground, or rises such as termite mounds, to keep an eye out for potential predators... Or other male competition!
The Black Wildebeest (also called "Gnu" after the noises they make) are one of the two species of Wildebeest (the other being Blue). It is very unusual to find both species in the same territory as they lead very different lifestyles. Whilst Blue Wildebeest are well known for their great migration, Black Wildebeest do not migrate but rather stay in the same area as long as it remains safe and provides food.
Nyalas are my favourite of the antelope. They have an unusual look with females looking distinctly different to males (male pictured left). Nyalas are normally found around areas of water, and like the Kudu is a browser and therefore has similar lined markings on it's coat to create a disruptive image in the thickets. I think my favourite part of the Nyala is the yellow legs, which always looks like they are wearing long yellow socks!
This strange looking creature is the mountain dwelling Klipspringer (which translates in English to Rock Jumper). They are especially well adapted to leaping about on rocks and seem to move about with great elegance I can barely replicate on stable ground, let alone rough, high rocks! Both the males and females of this species have horns, making it very difficult to tell the difference between the two.
This is such a small collection of all the antelope in Africa, and as you can imagine there are many species I have not yet come across in the wild. Some I have seen but failed to photograph as all you can manage is a fleeting glance.
So next time you are watching a nature documentary, don't just think "that's an antelope, that's what lions eat", but remember that they are each distinct and especially adapted animals that go through tremendous efforts to stay alive. They live to survive, they survive to live.