NATURE CORNER

Are wildebeests related to buffalos?

The fact that they belong to the ungulate class of animals, the even-toed class, and share similar characteristics, does not mean they are a family

In Summary

• Debunking the myth based on assumptions

Wildebeests cross the Mara River on their way to feeding grounds
Wildebeests cross the Mara River on their way to feeding grounds
Image: KENYA WILDLIFE SERVICE (KWS)

Among the many beliefs out there is that wildebeests of the great plains of Africa are a close relatives of the cape buffalos. But what if I tell you they are not?

The fact that they belong to the ungulate class of animals, the even-toed class, and share similar characteristics, does not mean they are a family.

Wildebeests are known to travel great distance in search of fresh shoots for grazing, unlike the buffalos, who are strictly territorial and are known to traverse short distances usually of the same land in search of pasture.

 

Wildebeests belong to the antelope family and are commonly referred to as the ‘Iconic Antelopes of the African Plains.’

Their distinctive marvelous, rugged appearance with anvil-shaped heads is unmistakable; they are easily singled out from different herds.

They are also commonly called the gnu and sometimes referred to as the poor man’s Buffalo” or the “fool of the veld”

Wildebeest congregate in massive herds of sometimes hundreds of thousands and participate in the Great Migration, one of the most amazing spectacles in the natural world.

Bizarrely proportioned and seemingly anonymous in their large herds, the wildebeest is often overlooked and sometimes even maligned as unattractive and unintelligent animal.

From an intelligence standpoint, wildebeests are actually very vibrant animals with playful personalities and some very admirable traits with beautifully placed eyes.

 

 
 

The Black and Blue Wildebeests            

There are two species of the wildebeests, common being the blue wildebeests native to the great East African plains, running through Kenya and Tanzania.

The blue wildebeests are characterized by their silvery blue hue coat with black mane running from the head to the hump.

The second species is the black wildebeests, native to the southern parts of Africa. They are actually brown in colour with flaxen colored tail and stiff mane, but from a distance they appear black.

The blue wildebeests are the heavier lot, averaging between 140-275kg, while their brothers weigh less, 133-181 kg.

The horn placement of the two species is also different, with the black wildebeests horns protruding first forwards, before dropping down and back up, while the blues horns extend to the sides, then down and up again.

Both males and females have horns, but those of a mature male are larger overall and thicker in particular.

The wildebeests establish themselves in to different groups. Bachelor herds consist of young male adults that are ready for mating and take opportunities challenging the older bulls for mating rights.

The female herds consist of females with calves and those young adults born from the previous calving season.

 

The Rut

A mature male blue wildebeest may have horns over 60 inches wide from tip to tip.

During breeding season male wildebeests attempt to establish territories and impress females by battling other males and sometimes these fights are fatal.

Bulls will charge each other, bellow, and kneel down and thrash horns in a dramatic display of dominance.

Territorial males establish temporary territories and attempt to gather as many females to their harem, numbering sometimes to well over 100 females. Soon after the rut, the males move ahead in an attempt to establish more territories.

Due to their numbers, the gnu, unlike most animals, do not have a single dominant bull.

Females give birth while standing up in the centre of the herd, to one large, well-formed calf.

Within 15 minutes of the newborn hitting the ground, it will be up and moving with the herd to avoid predators.

Migrating herds on their way to cross the Mara
Migrating herds on their way to cross the Mara
Image: /KENYA WILDLIFE SERVICE (KWS)

Why Wildebeests Migrate

For comparison purpose, the black wildebeests are permanent residents in their range but for the blue Wildebeests they journey in search of food, mating, breeding grounds and to escape predation.

Every year over 2 million wildebeest along with some 800,000 zebras and gazelles form one giant, continuous herd and travel about 2,896km following the rains between Kenya and Tanzania.

This migration is such a spectacle that it was named as one of the great wonders of the world.

The migration route is sometimes thought as a set circuit that occurs between Tanzania’s Serengeti plains in the south and Kenya’s Maasai Mara in the north.

But don’t let the patterns fool you, since this is a purely natural process, it is dependent on weather, other environmental factors and the animals instincts, their urge to migrate.

Their route is well known and timed from the southern Serengeti through the Western Corridor up to the Maasai Mara then back to the start through the Loliondo and Lobo area and finally to the plains.

Over the course of their migration routes, the herds cross two main rivers, the Grumeti on the south, they congregate here in the Western corridor building up their numbers before finally making their way across.

On the Northen corridor is where the Mara River lies which provides a spectacle to behold.

Wildebeest plunging in to the Mara river.
Wildebeest plunging in to the Mara river.
Image: /REUTERS

Feast of the Crocodiles

The months of July and August is traditionally thought of as the best season to view the migration to those on the Kenyan Side. Between July and August, the wildebeest move into Kenya’s Maasai Mara, crossing the Mara River in large numbers.

It is during this month a great spectacle unveils, the crossing of the Mara river.

It is here that the most sought after moments of migration is witnessed, hungry and waiting Nile crocodiles await the arrival of the herds and time them just as they start crossing, and they snatch and kill by drowning them.

Others die from exhaustion from the journey and failing to make their way across and are washed down river for scavengers like the marabou stork and vultures to feast on.

This great feast of the crocodiles tops the bucket list for many, and if it is to go by, then the months of July and August are the best to witness the climax of the great migrations as they pilgrim towards Kenya.

Lions on the Kenyan side also lie in waiting for the beasts to move in so they can enjoy the abundance by making an easy meal of injured adult wildebeests, the young and the lost.

The wildebeest larger family consists of topi, kongoni or hertebeests, among others.