Colours of Wildlife: Nyala

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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!"

Nyala by Willem.

It took a long time, but finally, it is here! One of my all-time favourite antelope species, a Nyala (Tragelaphus angasii). The name is pronounced 'nnn-yala' rather than 'ny-ala', and comes from the Zulu 'inxala' (which is even harder to pronounce). They're closely related to Kudus and other spiral-horned antelopes. Nyalas are not particularly common, being found only in south-eastern Africa, mainly in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa. They inhabit varied landscapes with trees, shrubs and small patches of grass, and with open drinking water available. Nyalas rarely stray far from cover during the day, but go out onto more open areas to graze in the evening and night.

Vive la Différence

This is a fairly large antelope – and one of the most sexually dimorphic. That is to say, there's a great difference between the males and the females, to the degree that the males are called 'bulls' like other large antelope males, but the females are called 'ewes' like the females of small antelopes. The bull you see here is big and very shaggy, with fairly long horns with a loose spiral twist. A nyala bull reaches a shoulder height of 1.2 m/4' and a bodyweight of about 140 kg/310 lbs; the ewe reaches a shoulder height of about 1 m/3'3" and a weight of 90 kg/200 lbs. But not only is she smaller, lighter and more slender than the bull – she is also completely different in colour. The mature bull is mostly greyish brown, but the ewe is a rich russet colour. She has more, and bolder, white stripes down her flanks, and lacks horns. Like the male, she has a short but very shaggy tail.

The bull is not only physically larger than the ewe, but also has tricks to make him seem larger still! He has a fringe or mane that stretches from his neck all the way down his back to his tail. He also has a long, shaggy beard below his chin and neck, and a long tuft of hair hanging down the midline of his belly. This extra long hair, above and below, makes his body seem massive when seen from the side. He also has a shaggy tuft of hair hanging down from the knees of his hind legs. His horns are white-tipped and reach a length of 83.5 cm/33".

Nyala babies all start out looking like the cow, rich and russet with bold white stripes. This might be because there is intense rivalry and aggression between adult bulls. It thus pays off for the male calves to not resemble the adult bulls at all, instead looking like the females, to whom the bulls are friendly. The bull calves start changing to the adult look at the age of about one year; they then will leave their mother to strike out on their own – although for a while young bulls group together into bachelor herds. The female offspring typically stay with the ewe for much longer. Along with dominant bulls they form herds of up to 30 individuals, but mostly smaller.

Adult bulls use numerous rituals to establish dominance. Some are not directed at another animal: they will dig up muddy soil using their horns and hooves. This is a visual sign of their territory, and involves some scent marking as well from glands at the bases their hooves. They also rub their heads against trees and shrubs, like other antelopes that scent-mark, but in their case, no actual scent seems to be deposited. They sometimes will beat the bushes with their horns.

When confronting other bulls, they will first of all raise their manes to make them seem bigger. They also raise their heads, necks and entire bodies, and strut around with slow, measured paces. A more aggressive pose is lowering the head, turning the horns forward, spreading out the tuft of hair along the belly, and raising and fanning the shaggy tail over the back.

If rival bulls want to take things further, they will first engage in sparring, bumping their heads together and fencing with their horns. The larger male typically manages to overpower and intimidate the smaller one, who signals submission by lowering his mane, shaking his head and tail, turning away, or even grooming the victor. Only rarely do matters progress beyond this into actual fighting. But when this happens, it is vehement and occasionally lethal.

The ewes are much more laid-back, but also compete and form dominance hierarchies. In their cases, they at the worst they bump each other's bellies with their heads.

Denizens of the Dry Limpopo

Historically, nyalas have occupied mainly the low-lying valley of the Limpopo River, for which the Limpopo Province has been named. They venture into some adjacent areas as well, and are found also around the valley of the Zambesi River much farther to the north. This land is unusually hot and arid. The soil tends to be sandy, meaning water drains away quick, and much of the vegetation is drought-adapted. Typical of the region are Baobab Trees, mopane trees, thorn trees, shepherd trees (Boscia), corkwoods, torchwoods, buffalo-thorns (Ziziphus), monkey oranges, bushwillows and cluster-leafs.

Here, nyalas feed very eclectically. During the short rainy season, fresh grass is available, on which they graze. But they mainly browse on a large variety of trees, shrubs and herbs. They take a lot of fruit also, feeding dropped marula fruit and other fruits like those of sausage trees, wild cucumbers, and the pods of various legumes. They'll eat fallen leaves of tall trees, and will even strip and eat the bark of baobabs.

To some degree, nyalas have benefited from humans. They're some of the most beautiful of all of Africa's wild creatures, and have been introduced into many places outside of their original range, as a result of which they are now quite numerous. Unfortunately for them, some of these places are game farms catering to trophy hunters mostly from America. I am hoping that we see a decrease in trophy hunting and instead an increase in them being shot with cameras instead! Surely that is also a good memento of an African holiday, and is comparatively challenging – these skulking antelope are indeed difficult to catch exposed and in a good pose – but mostly is a form of celebrating the beauty of the antelope while still leaving it alive for other people to enjoy.

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