The urban antelope

Report and photo by Tanya Heald

The steenbok (Raphicerus campestris) is a relatively small dwarf antelope that has captured the hearts of many with its melancholic – yet alert – expression. However, as one of the few species of antelope to have habituated to urban life, its general status is of ‘least concern’ according to the IUCN Red List.

These agile, graceful animals can be seen grazing in various habitats, including savannah, fynbos and lightly wooded areas. They generally browse on low-lying vegetation consisting of leaves from shrubs and small trees, grass and fruits, and have even been known to dig out roots and tubers. During the dry African summers, when food is not as widely available, steenbok have been known to catch small birds to supplement their diet, something I have witnessed personally.

There are two main subspecies, namely Raphicerus campestris campestris, distributed throughout South Africa bar a small sector along the eastern coastline and Lesotho, and Raphicerus campestris naumanni, found in Tanzania and Kenya, but believed to be extinct in Uganda. Steenbok generally breed once a year, but cases have been documented of females bearing young twice a year. Gestation takes 170 days, after which the female gives birth to a single offspring or, in rare cases, twins. The little one stays hidden for a few weeks after birth by lying low to the ground under some brush. Even though it can walk shortly after birth, it will only follow the mother after about two weeks. Once it is able to follow the ewe, it starts exhibiting playful and precocious behaviour, which can be exhausting for the mother at times! The young are weaned at around three months and reach sexual maturity before a year.

Steenbok are extremely well camouflaged in the dry brush thanks to their tawny coloration, which presents in different hues. There are white markings under the jaw, on the underbelly and beneath the tail. The black facial markings extend from the nose halfway up the bridge of the snout and also form an open-ended V from between the ears towards each eye. On average they are 80 cm in height and weigh approximately 16 kg, with the young weighing around 0.9 kg at birth. It’s hard to believe how they dart around on those long, slender legs, yet they can run fast and in a zig-zag pattern to avoid capture. Among the distinctive identification points are the finger-like markings in the ears. Only the males have horns, which are around 8 to 19 cm long and are parallel.

The steenbok’s facial glands are well documen-ted, and there are also scent glands between the hooves and beneath the chin. These are used as communication between steenbokkies and as a means of demarcating territory. Males and females tend to pair for life, but they separate after mating and move back to their respective adjoining territories, coming back together only to breed. I have also seen both parents raising their young. Whether or not this is because of the added danger of living in urban areas remains to be established. The male is alerted to the female being in oestrous by sniffing her urine.

The only threats to these animals are humans and their pets. People generally hunt these animals for sport or fun, and in some areas shoot them from their vehicles, as they make easy targets. Some professional hunters, who frown upon this type of illegal hunting as it discredits their industry, have even actively approached conservation organisations to find a solution to the problem. One such organisation is the West Coast Branch of the South African Hunters and Game Conservation Association, which consulted with major role players about illegal hunting in an urbanised smallholding area. This led to the full picture being exposed, which helped those organisations that combat this type of illegal hunting.

Dogs that are allowed to roam freely or escape inadequately enclosed yards form packs and hunt the steenbokkies, leaving some orphaned or severely maimed. In other instances, impoverished communities use wire snares and gin traps to capture these animals as a source of meat.

I feel truly blessed to be able to drive around my town and have these antelope grace me with their presence. I have witnessed them mating, giving birth, browsing in gardens and generally distracting me from the day-to-day chaos that we all live with. It’ll be a sad day when this is no longer possible.

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