Colours of Wildlife: Greater Kudu

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Greater Kudu

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!"

Greater Kudu by Willem

I hope you appreciate the treat I have for you today! This is the Greater Kudu, Tragelaphus strepsiceros, one of the most magnificent of all African antelopes. The painting is of a bull; the cows don't have any horns, as the drawing shows. The horns of the bull can reach 185 cm/6' in length, measured along the spiral! It can also reach a shoulder height of 150 cm/5', making it one of the tallest of antelopes, and a bodyweight of 315 kg/690 lbs. Cows are much smaller, reaching about 210 kg/460 lbs. The cow is similar in colour and stripey pattern to the bull, and also has a mane of hair on her neck and back, but lacks the long, luxurious 'beard' the bull has running from his chin down the length of his neck. As in zebras, kudu stripe patterns are unique and can be used to recognize individuals.

In South Africa, kudus are actually some of the most widespread of the antelopes, occurring in all parts of the country where there is significant woody cover. They are the only really large antelopes that frequently still occur outside of nature reserves and game farms. They also occur throughout the rest of sub-Saharan Africa except for the west and the rainforest belt. For such large animals they can hide themselves incredibly well. My picture can give you an indication of how its stripey grey-brown body can blend in with the dappled sunlight in the bush (I've actually highlighted and emphasized the kudu in my painting so it stands out more boldly from its background). I remember an occasion where I was with friends in the Kruger National Park. We were five people in total and we were driving along with all eyes peeled on the lookout for animals. Well, we drove by a group of kudus … a bull and several cows, within less than a dozen metres of the road, completely out in the open except there were some small trees casting a bit of shade. The kudus stood in the shade of the trees, but their bodies were entirely exposed to view. Now what is significant is that nobody in the car saw them or the slightest sign of them – we drove right by them without slowing down – that is to say, no-one saw them but me, and I was so completely awestruck at how incredibly well camouflaged they were that I was unable to say a word until we were well past them … for a while I was even incredulous about having seen them myself, considering it impossible that such large animals could stand right by the roadside without anybody else having seen them. But doing some self-evaluation I had to come to the conclusion that it was not a hallucination, only an example of incredible camouflage. The kudus were standing in positions with their limbs, necks and horns so closely mirroring the trees and branches surrounding them … and for as long as they were within our view they remained totally frozen in place. It was one of the most literally awesome things in nature I'd ever seen.

But sometimes the kudus will be more bold and not mind being seen, especially in places where they are not hunted. I've caught many excellent sightings of them, but haven't managed a good photo yet. They occur in our local game reserve and in every other sizeable reserve hereabouts as well. Kudus are browsers and feed on the leaves of a vast variety of plants. They'll also eat fruits and pods and will eat fresh green grass. They're able to process plants that are poisonous to other species, and will eat leaves containing high levels of tannins when there's nothing else available. They'll sometimes dig up and eat juicy tubers. The bulls use their long horns to reach up and break off twigs and branches, thus bringing their foliage within reach. Kudus need access to drinking water, but are willing and able to travel over very long distances to find it.

A kudu cow

Kudus are moderately social antelopes. The cows form small herds along with their calves, reaching up to 20 members. Bulls usually go alone or form small bachelor herds. During the breeding season bulls will fight for females, locking their horns and wrestling with their powerful necks. In fact, a kudu bull's neck bulks up visibly at the onset of the season! Sometimes the horns lock together so closely that the two bulls cannot separate again which will result in both their deaths. Bulls that survive and win will have access to the females and join their herds for the season. But females also have the right to refuse! A cow that doesn't like a particular bull will bite him.

Mating happens at the end of the rainy season; gestation is about eight months, and so the calves are born at the start of the next rainy season. It's usually just a single calf, but sometimes twins. The mother hides her calf in the bushes for the first 4-6 weeks, only returning to nurse it. Next the calf will start roaming along with the adults. At six months the bull will be able to take care of itself, but the young cow will take around a year. But while the cow is fully grown at two years, the bull will only reach his full size and full horn length at the age of six. Kudus can live for twenty years; bulls rarely make it beyond nine, though, but cows regularly make it to fifteen.

In the wild kudus have a hard life. They must constantly hide from predators and human hunters, and in much of the country they inhabit, they must search far for good browse. They also often must endure long dry seasons; when rains are late many starve to death. But when a long dry season is followed by a spree of cold and wet weather they may also die of exposure, their bodyfat being low. Because of their size, they only need to worry about the largest predators, namely (apart from humans) lions, hyenas and leopards. In the dense bush where kudus live they cannot run fast for long distances, but they are prodigious leapers, easily clearing obstacles up to 2 m/6'7" in height. Their senses are very keen – they have large eyes and enormous ears, and also an excellent sense of scent. They are always on the alert for danger. Kudus do however often suffer from disease such as anthrax and rabies. But they are very resilient and populations can quickly recover from die-offs.

The horn of the greater kudu is used for the Yemenite Shofar, used in Jewish ceremonial observation. Have a listen. In African tribal society these horns also used to be used for signaling important events such as a warning of the approach of an enemy. Today they're much more frequently heard at soccer matches! But they're also used in some Christian communities.

And then there's this: kudu dung spitting. Yes, this is a sport here with us Afrikaners. You take a nice, round kudu dropping ('bokdrol' in Afrikaans) and you spit it as far as possible. The current record is just over 15 m/50'. To reassure you, no, I haven't participated in this sport myself and am certainly not planning to!

There is another species of kudu, called the Lesser Kudu, Tragelaphus imberbis. It doesn't occur in South Africa, though, only in the northeast of Africa from Tanzania to Ethiopia. It is much smaller and the bull lacks a beard ('imberbis' means beardless). The so-called Mountain Nyala, Tragelaphus buxtoni, highly endangered in Ethiopia, is also a close relative. Together with elands, bushbuck, nyalas and bongos, kudus form a tribe called the spiral-horned antelopes. They are actually more closely related to cattle, wild oxen, buffaloes and bison than to other antelopes.

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