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The Cape eland

14 April 2014

 

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The Cape eland Taurotragus oryx oryx is South Africa’s largest antelope but it is smaller than the giant, or Lord Derby, eland Taurotragus derbianus which occurs further north in Africa. The Cape eland was first described scientifically by Pallas in 1766 as Antelope oryx, based on a specimen which came from the mountains north of Cape Town. Because Antelope only occurs in India, the generic name Taurotragus was created in 1847 by Gray for all eland. Largely because the eland and the greater kudu may hybridise, some scientists have placed the eland under the greater kudu’s generic name Tragelaphus, but this is taxonomically invalid. Any similarities are primitive as a result of retaining a similar morphology by the chromosomes, and Taurotragus and Tragelaphus are products of parallel development, having already diverged phylogenetically thousands of years ago. Moreover, hybridisation occurs between other antelope species too and is no reason to lump their generic names. Recent species-specific genotyping with single nucleotide polymorphism indicates that Taurotragus still is a valid genus. The oldest eland fossils lived some 1 million to 500 000 years ago at Olduvai in Tanzania, but they were more primitive than the current types of eland.

Both sexes carry spiralled horns that in a bull are more robust than in a cow. In a bull the horns have a thick spiralled ridge at the skull base after reaching an age of 15 months. Horn buds are, however, present at birth and the horns grow rapidly. The current Rowland Ward record horn length is 89.8 cm. The eland bull is 170 cm tall at the shoulder and weighs 700 to 900 kg as opposed to 150 cm and 460 kg in a cow. The coat colour is buff brown, sometimes with a few white vertical stripes on the flanks. When an eland walks its knee joints click characteristically.

The Cape eland only occurs in South Africa and in the adjacent regions in Mozambique, Namibia and southern Botswana. It has a wide habitat choice but is restricted to regions that receive at least 200 mm of rain per year. Ideal bushveld for a Cape eland contains 150 to 300 trees per ha. The Cape eland formerly occurred along the coast of South Africa and also occurs in arid and mountainous regions. However, in the high mountains it moves to the lower valleys in the winter. The Cape eland is a mixed feeder and also utilises grazing that has recently been burned. The high metabolic rate of a Cape eland requires forage with high protein content. For this reason the Cape eland prefers leaves that retain their protein content better than grasses in the dry season, but it does graze in the wet season. On an annual basis the diet consists of 50% grasses, 45% leaves and 5% wild fruits. The Cape eland will break branches with its horns to gain access to leaves. It also eats toxic plants but requires some moisture in the forage and will die of starvation during long droughts because it cannot digest totally dry forage. A Cape eland drinks around 30 litres of water per day when water is available, and it has no preference for time when drinking water.

The Cape eland forms herds of thousands of animals when it migrates in arid regions to follow rain storms. However, it normally occurs in smaller and non-territorial herds. The bulls and cows become sexually mature when they are 18 months old, but the bulls only mate for the first time when they are 60 months old. The gestation period of 271 to 279 days is shorter than in Afrikaner cattle (296 days). A single reddish-brown calf of 30 kg is born and can soon run with its mother. The young and yearling bulls form bachelor herds outside the peak mating season but join the breeding herds in the spring and early summer. Nevertheless, mating can occur throughout the year. Calving percentages of up to 95% are possible, but calf mortalities vary from 22 to 66%. The calf weans when it is 120 to 150 days old and a population growth rate of 11 to 38% is possible (mean: 20%) depending on rainfall, veld condition and predator pressure. The life expectancy is around 15 years.

Based on the wildlife auction prices for 2010, the meat of an eland is relatively cheap at R15.15 per kg for a mean individual in a population that weighs 460 kg.

 

References:

Decker, J et al. 2009. Resolving the evolution of extant and extinct ruminants with high-throughput phylogenomics. PNAS 106 (44): 18644 – 18649.

Du Toit, J G 2005. The eland. In J du P Bothma and N van Rooyen (Eds), Intensive wildlife production in southern Africa. Pretoria: Van Schaik, pp 108 – 124.

Grubb, P 2005. Order Artiodactyla. In D E Wilson and D M Reeder (Eds), Mammal species of the world - a taxonomic and geographic reference, third edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, pp 696 – 697.

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

Article by Prof J du P Bothma

 

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