Eland – The World’s Largest Antelope

Young eland bulls sparring

Eland – The World’s Largest Antelope

The eland is the world’s largest antelope and gained its name from the Dutch word ‘eland’ which means ‘elk’. It is one of the most adaptable of the antelopes – equally at home in savannah, sub-desert, woodland and mountainous areas up to 4600m.  In the Western Cape, it is able to survive within the low-nutrient fynbos and herds of up to 400 eland may be viewed at certain times of the year within the De Hoop Nature Reserve, while other stable populations are also found within the West Coast National Park and at Cape Point in the Table Mountain National Park.

The eland’s ability to survive in the fynbos is through its ability to greatly vary its diet, which consists not only of bulk grazing and browsing, but also includes fruits, pods, seeds and tubers. The lips gather up the food and feeding eland sometimes use their horns to pull down and break branches, which would normally be out of reach. Roots and tubers are dug up with the front hooves. Although water is plentiful within its Western Cape range, Eland can go indefinitely without it and studies have shown that water-deprived eland allow their body temperature to rise as much as seven degrees centigrade during the day, thereby conserving moisture by not sweating. They then let the cooler nighttime temperatures lower their body temperatures down again. The great bulk of their bodies keeps their temperatures from rising too quickly and also allows them to store more heat during colder periods. Concentrating the urine and passing dry faeces further reduces water loss. In hot, dry periods the metabolic rate is lowered and breathing becomes slower and deeper. During the hotter summer months, eland will be most active during the early morning and late evenings, feeding mainly during the night.

The eland is a non-territorial, gregarious and nomadic species and during the drier summer months, when food availability becomes scarce, herds become smaller in size and are scattered over a wider area. Bulls move off from the rest of the herd and form small bachelor parties, with the really old bulls moving off entirely on their own. From March through to September, when food production is at its highest and most palatable level, the smaller herds congregate to form large herds. This major herding is also aligned to the calving season and it is not uncommon to see herds comprising more calves and juveniles than adults. A newly born eland calf can stand almost immediately and will follow its mother after three to four hours. It lies away from the rest of the herd until about one month old. A calf will follow and try to suckle from any adult female and although several calves may follow a cow it will only suckle her own calf. These calves form nursery herds and this forces the lactating females to remain together. It has been found that the young calves may in fact be more attached to one another than to their own mothers and they will often keep within one meter of one another, playing, licking and lying next to each other. As the calves get older the social bonding decreases and they start to become more independent.

Peter Chadwick

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