Colours of Wildlife: Bush Duiker

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Bush Duiker

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!"

Bush Duiker by Willem

I have another small antelope for you this week. It is a Bush Duiker, Sylvicapra grimmia. The scientific name means 'Grimm's Forest Goat', and it's also known as a Grey Duiker, Common Duiker, Grimm's Duiker, or Diving Goat (in old sources). The name 'duiker' means 'diver' and is based on this species' habit of rapidly dodging and diving into the cover of dense vegetation when fleeing from a human or other predator. These duikers are extremely widespread, occurring over all of sub-Saharan Africa except for dense rainforests, treeless grasslands, or open desert. Anywhere they can find trees or shrubs to hide in and to feed from, they occur, even on the highest African mountains up to the snowline.

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Like many recent antelopes I've featured here, Bush Duikers are quite small – not the smallest of all, but on the small side of the spectrum. They average about 50 cm/20" at the shoulder and weigh 12-18 kg/27-40 lbs, with some females reaching 25.5 kg/56 lbs. Yes, the females are the bigger sex! But they don't carry horns except in very unusual cases. Males have the short, rather upright and very sharp horns, typically just about 10 cm/4" in length but in exceptional cases reaching 18 cm/7". The male also has a pointy black tuft of hair between the horns. Although sometimes called 'grey' duikers, they're mostly brownish, sometimes a rich red brown in body colour. Their tails are very short, and have white undersides. Their bellies and the insides of their limbs are white also. The rather rubbery nose is black, and there's typically a black stripe from the nose to the forehead. They have large, black eyes, and the typical large glands at the corners of their eyes that all the duikers and some other small antelopes have. From a slit, this gland exudes a tarry substance which the duikers smear onto twigs or other physical features of their territories to scent-mark them.

These small antelopes are pretty ubiquitous in South Africa, even penetrating grassland and desert wherever there are streams with trees and bushes on their banks. They're very dependent on the shelter these provide. They're probably the antelopes most frequently encountered, certainly here in Polokwane where I live, where even now there are still a few residents on the outskirts of the town. They sometimes enter gardens, where they will earn the ire of the suburbanites by nibbling at pretty much everything pretty, often consuming some highly prized ornamental specimens. They cause even more damage on farms, where they will eat just about the very same things we do: maize, peanuts, beans, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, cabbages … they're also known for damaging young pine trees in commercial plantations. They're clever and even able to withstand survive extensive campaigns of hunting and trapping.

It is a pity that these antelopes are so persecuted, because actually they are delightful as well as admirably well-adapted. They're the most versatile of the duiker family, all the others being purely species of forests and dense woodlands. Bush duikers, by contrast, can survive and thrive in more open habitats, being only dependent on a bit of cover. Their ears are larger than those of the forest duikers, and their legs longer. They are fast and can outrun the dogs of hunters; their dodging, ducking and diving manoeuvres also make them very difficult to follow. They feed on a great variety of plant foods. When not tormenting farmers or gardeners, they feed mainly on leaves, twigs and flowers from various wild trees and shrubs, but will do a bit of grazing on rare occasions. They will dig out roots, tuber and bulbs with their sharp hooves; they will eat low-growing fruits such as the succulent tsamma melons or relatives of the nightshade, Solanum; they will pick up fruit dropped from trees by monkeys and baboons; they'll eat some fallen pods and seeds – there's a tree named for them, the Duikerberry, but I couldn't find any actual info as to whether they do eat the pods of that tree; they eat fungi, and will even nibble at the bark of some trees and eat the resin that exudes from the wound; lastly they also occasionally take animal food such as small lizards, the chicks of ground-living birds, or the big Mopane Moth caterpillars. They get all their moisture from the foods they consume, and rarely drink water even where it's readily available.

Another reason bush duikers are so successful, is their fecundity. Before mating the ram courts the ewe by playfully chasing and frolicking with her. Ewes only give birth to a single lamb at a time, but can do so each year, any time of the year, and their offspring can have their own children at the age of eight to nine months. They also take good care of their babies. Directly after it's born, the lamb's mother will lick it clean so as to remove all pungent odours from it, and then hide it in a bush clump. She goes out to feed, and then returns to suckle it a few times each day. If the lamb is threatened by a predator it will first freeze, lying flat on the ground with its ears folded back; if actually caught, it will bleat loudly and both its parents will come charging to it. The male can wield his short horns to deadly effect, and even the female will head-butt humans or predators in defense of her lamb.

Sadly, this protective behaviour is exploited by hunters, who imitate the bleating call of baby duikers to lure the adults close. But duikers do learn. Where heavily hunted, they become much more wary, and also much more nocturnal in their habits. Where not hunted, they can often be seen during the daytime, avoiding only the warm hours of the mid-day by resting in the shelter of trees, shrubs or clumps of tall grass. They use this siesta-time to digest their food and chew the cud a bit. But they remain wary and will leap out when feeling threatened. They give a nasal snort as an alarm call.

At present, bush duikers are pretty much the least threatened of all Africa's antelope species. They survive even in fairly densely populated regions, benefiting in some places from the elimination of large predatory mammals. They're very successful in pristine wild regions as well. Under favourable circumstances, duikers can reach the age of twelve years. They're sometimes caught and raised as semi-pets; they become engagingly tame, but should always be considered potentially dangerous wild animals: they are very strong for their size and can inflict serious injuries either with their horns or their sharp-tipped hooves.

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