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Wildlife matters

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The social behaviour of the Cape eland

27 July 2016


Appearance and habitat

The two types of eland are sometimes grouped with the sitatunga, greater kudu, lesser kudu, bushbuck, bongo and nyala in the genus Tragelaphus because hybridization between the Cape eland and the greater kudu may occur. Although a greater kudu cow may rarely carry atavistic horns, the Cape eland is the only spiral-horned antelope in South Africa in which well-developed horns occur in the cows. However, in the deep forests of East Africa, the bongo Tragelaphus eurycerus also has spiralled horns in both genders.

The eland shares an ancient, common ancestor with Tragelaphus but it diverged a thousand or more years ago from a common ancestor into a separate genus Taurotragus of which there are two species, the Cape eland Taurotragus oryx and the giant eland Taurotragus derbianusof West Africa. Livingstone´s and Patterson´s eland are only ecotypes (local variants) of the Cape eland. The Cape eland will henceforth only be referred to as the eland.




The Cape elandThe eland usually occurs in small, scattered herds, but large aggregations may form to follow localized rainfall in the southern Kalahari, the Drakensberg region of KwaZulu-Natal and southern Zimbabwe. The social behaviour of the eland is unique among the antelopes of southern Africa. In large, unfenced areas, the eland in KwaZulu-Natal forms large, mixed herds consisting of up to 200 animals during the wet, summer months of December and January. These aggregations include breeding bulls and cows as well as non-breeding animals. Mating only occurs between the breeding cows and the dominant bulls because the dominant bulls actively exclude the subordinate ones from breeding. In March, these large aggregations break up into smaller herds again and disperse as small herds of four to ten animals of a one gender or age, or a combination of sex and age classes. The lowest densities in any given area occur during the winter when there may be as little as one eland per 54 ha. However, when the calves are born in September and early October, eland start to aggregate again and these aggregated herds gradually increase in size towards December.

Die Kaapse elandIn the northern Bushveld areas of South Africa the adult cows, yearlings and subadults form nursery herds from August to October, while the adult bulls remain in separate bachelor herds, while the nursery herds increase markedly in size during this time. A limited number of adult bulls join the nursery herds from late October to form breeding herds. Such a breeding herd is a relatively peaceful and compact unit, but the bulls that remain in the bachelor herds may engage in serious fights among themselves.

Calves are born throughout the year, but calving peaks from August to December. The calves become increasingly independent and wean from February to April when the adult cows and bulls start to leave the nursery herds for increasing periods. Towards the end of April, the nursery herds will mainly consist of young eland that remain independent units throughout the winter to form the nucleus of the nursery herd of the following year when the adult cows again join them again. The bulls usually remain in separate bachelor herds during the winter but individual bulls will join the nursery herds during the rutting season to form new breeding herds.

In both the genders, dominance is displayed by varied ritual behaviours. Threat displays in particular are determined by the reaction of the individual being threatened. If a threatened individual moves off quickly, the threat display is discontinued, but if the response is slow then a threat may be followed by horning with the horns being directed upward towards the body of the opponent. When one eland approaches another one closely, a shake of the head is usually enough to cause the opponent to move off. Sometimes a dominant eland will, however, touch the side of the body of an opponent with the horns. The cows are especially vicious in whipping their horns at the sides of strange calves. Consequently, allo-suckling where a calf will suckle from a variety of cows does not occur. Eland will rarely charge each other, but when they do so the horns are lowered. Charging usually causes an opponent to move away without any physical contact being made.

When one bull accepts the challenge of another one, however, the two opponents lower their horns and ultimately interlock them while they push and heave forward and twist their necks and heads until one of them turns his body and head and moves off. These tussles can become quite intense and fatal injuries from the sharp, heavy horns may occur. Adult cows may also fight in this way but they do so with much less intensity than the bulls.

There is no evidence that eland are territorial in the sense of defending an area. The hierarchy in an eland herd appears to be based on the age and gender of an animal, with the older, larger bulls dominating the younger and smaller bulls, but with no dominance hierarchy among the cows. All the eland will tests the urine of each other at times and will sniff, lick and drink the urine and then show flehmen with a curled back upper lip and the nose held high to determine whether an individual is in oestrus or rut.



Range and behaviour

Die Kaapse eland

Eland groom themselves and each other regularly. When self-grooming they scratch their bodies and faces on objects such as tree trunks or rocks. They also groom each other by licking the sides, head, neck and rump of other eland. Eland are only partly active during the daytime because they feed at night, particularly during the summer months.

The eland is generally quite silent but there are various sounds that are made under certain circumstances, such as mooing when a cow calls her calf. In turn a calf will bleat when it calls its mother when it becomes lost, or it will whimper softly when it approaches strange calves. Adult cows may bark at strange objects and adult bulls will bellow to advertise their dominance, or will give a belching grunt to repel others from food. The eland is well-known for the characteristic clicking sound which it makes when walking. This sound is audible over a considerable distance and its cause has led to much speculation but it seems to be made by their knees.

An eland is a prodigious jumper and can clear obstacles such as fences that are at least 2 m high. A herd is on the move continually when not feeding and can trot long distances at great speed. Nevertheless, the eland is the slowest of all the antelopes of Africa. In some areas of southern Africa the eland populations are relatively sedentary, such as in south-eastern Zimbabwe, but in other areas they move around extensively. Especially in the arid, south-western parts of Botswana, large aggregations of eland may form to follow recent rain so as to utilize the resultant seasonal availability of food. Because of tall fences, hundreds of eland died during the most recent such movement in 1988 and 1989 along the borders between Namibia and Botswana and South Africa and Botswana.

Eland will also move onto areas that have burned recently so as to eat fresh, sprouting grass or the palatable seedpods of shrubs and trees. When they move around other than for food, the movement is initiated by the dominant adults. Such movements may be triggered by high winds, to seek shade on hot days for heat regulation or to shelter from rain. The eland does not turn its body to the angle of the sun, nor does it have a cooling system for the brain as do some other large herbivores.



Selected references:

Bothma, J du P & J G du Toit (Eds) 2016. Game ranch management, sixth edition. Pretoria: Van Schaik.

Du Toit, J G 2005. The eland. In: J du P Bothma & J G du Toit (Eds), Intensive wildlife production in southern Africa. Pretoria: Van Schaik, pages 108 - 124.

Grubb, P 2005. Order Artiodactyla. In: D E Wilson & D M Reeder (Eds), Mammal species of the world, third edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, pages 696 - 697.

Skinner, J D & C T Chimimba (Eds) 2005. The mammals of the southern African subregion, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pages 637 - 642.

article by Prof J du P Bothma


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