Colours of Wildlife: The Steenbok

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Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours ... but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

The Steenbok

Today's picture is of a Steenbok! This is a special picture for me since it is done from a photo taken by a friend. I have a nickname for these little antelopes: instead of 'Steenbokkies' (the diminutive in Afrikaans) I call them 'Beenstokkies' (little leg-sticks) because of their thin, stick-like legs! They are common around where I live and I've encountered them lots of times in the veldt. This is a watercolour painting.

Just like the Dik-dik of the previous article, the Steenbok is a member of the Dwarf Antelope tribe, the Neotragini. It is, however, one of the largest members of the tribe, reaching 60 cm/2 ft at the shoulder and a weight of 16 kg/35 lbs. Only the Oribi and the Klipspringer can get larger than this. While these species are also more widespread in Africa, they occur in very specific habitats and the Steenbok might be more abundant overall. It lives in dry savannah woodland, grassland and scrub regions with two centres of distribution: one the drier regions of Southern Africa, mostly South Africa, Botswana and Namibia, and the other in East Africa, mostly in Tanzania and Kenya.

Steenboks are sometimes also called Steinbucks. This is a peculiar mingling of German (Steinböckchen) and English. 'Steenbokkie' means the same thing: 'little rock antelope'. This is because this antelope frequently occurs in areas where there is stony ground or around rocky hills or 'koppies'. It does not actually live on the rocks like the Klipspringer does. It also occurs in many areas where the ground is not stony at all, such as the sandy Kalahari Desert, so the name is not very appropriate.

Encountering these antelopes is a typical experience of a hike in the South African veldt, or a drive through a game reserve. Sometimes you will startle one, coming up close to it – your first awareness of it will be when it noisily charges off. But sometimes you'll see one before you get that close and have some time to inspect and appreciate it before it runs away. A Steenbok is a very pretty and elegant little antelope: rich russet brown with a compact body, a very short tail, but long limbs and neck, a fine head with a black button-nose, big black eyes and huge ears. It is always very alert, having so many natural enemies. Only the ram has horns. They are straight, upright, thin and sharp-tipped, averaging about 10 cm/4" in length but exceptionally reaching 20 cm/8".

Steenboks are often tamed. Here are pictures of one that lived on my cousin's farm in the Orange Free State.

Also, this is a little antelope that even many hardened hunters over here are reluctant to hunt because it is so pretty. If only everyone could see how beautiful all the wild, living things are!

Steenboks are also quite monogamous, like the dik-diks and Klipspringers, but the ram and ewe usually move and defend their territories independently. They don't have large orbital (corner-of-the-eye) glands, but have scent glands between their hooves so that they mark out scent trails as far as they walk. They do use the orbital scent glands, and also a gland on their chins, to mark twigs or grass stalks. Instead of piling their dung into heaps like the dik-diks, they scrape out trenches with their hooves into which they urinate and then defecate. They will then scrape some soil back over it again. These dung middens are important beacons in their territories, and together with the scent cues enable the ram and ewe to keep track of each other's movements through their territories. These range in size from 3 hectares (a tad over a hundredth of a square mile) to 1 square kilometer (about 0.4 square miles). In open regions such as grassland or semi-desert, they will pick out territories that have patches of riverine scrub or thickets to provide them with shelter, although they will spend much time browsing on the open plains.

These little antelopes are versatile feeders, eating grass, leaves and fruits, browsing close to ground-level most of the time. They will also dig out roots and tubers with their hooves. Like dik-diks, they can survive without drinking water, getting all the moisture they need from the plants that they ingest.

At the moment Steenboks are not threatened, being perhaps the most abundant antelope in all of South Africa and also similarly abundant in other parts of its range. It has many natural predators and is often hunted for food, or falls prey to wild dogs. Nevertheless, it is very adaptable and fertile; in some parts of South Africa it seems that Steenbok ewes can give birth twice a year. A single lamb is born, weighing about 900 grams/2 lbs, and it is precocious, able to walk and run immediately. Nevertheless, it keeps itself hidden for the first few weeks of its life, lying down flat amidst shelter while its mom forages, until she returns to suckle it, which typically would be twice a day. She will also lick it clean and even eat its feces and drink its urine to minimize odours that might attract predators. The lamb weans at the age of three months, and is fertile at the age of eight months. Steenboks can live for seven years.

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