While an African Safari cannot be complete without seeing the big 5, witnessing the annual Mara/Serengeti migration of the wildebeests is a thrill that cannot be expressed in words. However, there is more to these animals than just being hoofed African antelopes that travel 3,000 kilometers in search of grass.
The wildebeest is an African ungulate that is commonly known as ‘Gnu.’ It is predominantly found in Eastern and Southern Africa. There are two species of this animal, the Blue Wildebeest, and the Black Wildebeest. Both of which are native to Africa.
These animals fall in the same category as antelopes and belong to the Bovidae family, which also consists of goats, sheep, and cows. Wildebeests are among the most abundant hoofed animals on the African continent.
If you are thinking about going on safari, read on because this article will detail everything that you need to know about the wildebeest.
Skip to: Characteristics, Range & habitat, Diet, Behaviour, Fun facts, Video
Latin name: Connochaetes taurinus
Group name: Herd
Size: 1.2 meters tall, 1.8 meters long
Weight: Anywhere from 120 kg to 270 kg
The wildebeest has interesting looks; the head of a cow, the body and tail of a horse, and the legs of a gazelle.
These animals are even more interesting because they don’t all look the same. Some wear a light grey coat while others sport a shade of blue-grey. The darkest of this species, however, is grey-brown in color.
All wildebeests have dark brown stripes on their shoulders that run down vertically. Additionally, they have a thick and long black mane. But the most distinct feature on this animal is the long beard on its neck, which can be pale or dark.
All wildebeests have horns that curl away from their heads, with males having larger horns. In fact, a male wildebeest’s horns can be twice the size of those of a female. Males can have horns growing as long as 83 centimeters while a female’s horns will rarely grow longer than 40 centimeters. For some reason, the horns tend to get rougher as the animal ages.
The wildebeest can reach a height of up to 1.35 meters at the shoulders and can weigh up to 200 kilograms. For a rough comparison, a full-grown animal can weigh as much as a full-grown male lion.
Despite their size, wildebeests are vulnerable to the lions, wild dogs, cheetahs, and hyenas of the African Savannah, and as such, need to travel in herds for protection. A herd can have as many as 1000 animals, especially during migration.
Range & habitat
Being nomadic animals, wildebeests live either in grassy plains or in woodlands. You are most likely going to find them in the world-famous Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya or Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. However, you can also find them in the southern part of Africa.
These herbivores thrive in the savannah grasslands, as grass tends to grow quicker in these areas.
Even though wildebeests tend to live together, they do not seem to mind the company of zebras as their feeding habits are complementary to each other. Zebras love eating the top layer of grass, while wildebeests prefer the bottom layer. This also explains why they migrate together.
Unlike antelopes such as impalas, elands, or blackbucks, the wildebeest is a grazer. This means that it predominantly feeds on grass. While there isn’t always a choice in the wild, the gnu prefers short tender grass that grows shortly after the rains.
For this reason, wildebeests are always on the road looking for fresh grass and water. Owing to their huge size, these animals have to graze all day in order to meet their daily nutritional requirements.
As an adaptation, wildebeests have a wide mouth, which allows them to feed quickly as they have to constantly look out for predators. When grass is not available, they will eat succulent plants.
Behaviour & lifestyle
Few animals can rival the wildebeests’ nomadic nature. These animals begin their long journey after the calving season in the Serengeti National Park and move 3,000 kilometers south into the Masai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya.
Contrary to popular belief, this is not a straightforward journey but rather a rhythmic one without a definite starting point and endpoint. What is certain, however, is that it is a treacherous odyssey, and only the fittest animals survive.
Crossing the Mara River is a spectacle that has been recognized as one of the natural wonders of the world. Close to two million animals jumping into a crocodile-infested river and making a run for dear life is not something that can be witnessed anywhere.
Wildebeests are active in the mornings and late afternoons to escape the midday heat and sleep at night. Unfortunately, they tend to make a lot of noise while resting, which makes them vulnerable to predation.
Female wildebeests mature between the ages of 2 and 3 years, while males mature at 3 or 4 years. Upon reaching sexual maturity, males leave their herd to form theirs or wander away to join other herds.
A male wildebeest usually sets up its territory by marking it with feces or urine. Males will fight off other males attempting to enter their herd.
Females stay with their mother’s herd, even though they have been known to veer off to other herds. As expected, males are usually accepting of new females.
The gestation period of a wildebeest is about eight months, with mating being seasonal. Wildebeests seem to have perfect timing as most calves are usually born close to the beginning of the rainy season when food is plenty.
Fun wildebeest facts
- Wildebeests’ calves can stand and run within minutes of being born. This is an adaptation to avoid predation from lions, hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, and jackals.
- A wildebeest can live for as long as 20 years
- During the Great Wildebeest Migration, wildebeests and associated animals can number close to 2 million
Meet the wildebeest
Wildebeests are some of the most phenomenal animals on the planet. They are strong, determined, and vibrant. While there are those who find them unattractive or not “charming enough,” the truth is that they are some of the toughest animals you will ever come across. And they have no apologies to make.
Where did you last have the chance to observe wildebeest on an African safari? Let us know in the comments below!
Read about more safari animals.