Most of Africa’s wild landscapes revolve around antelopes. They’re the permanent fixtures, the unmissable characters that grace every safari journey. It’s rarely just one or a few. You’ll be encountering thousands upon thousands of antelopes. And on a multi-day safari, you’ll learn how to distinguish each of the individual antelope species.
An integral part of a game drive
These animals are preyed upon and predatory scenes bring unrivalled drama; on many occasions we’ve been rooting for the antelope rather than wanting to see a successful hunt. Antelopes are a natural part of game drives although you won’t often stop to see them (they’re that abundant). They’re also beautifully encountered around luxury camps and on walking safaris, when you can get incredibly close if you stay silent and unthreatening.
The Antelopes of Africa
From the long necks of gerenuk to the incredible horns of the sable antelope, there are over 30 different species to find, plus many many more subspecies. Each park and reserve has its own eclectic cast and you’ll love that moment on safari when you can identify who is who without the guide’s assistance.
All these antelopes are herbivores. And many have horns. But that’s where some of the similarities end. Here’s our brief lowdown of what you can find where.
Bushbuck, Sitatunga, Nyala, and Bongo
These forest-dwelling antelopes have very impressive horns and resplendent fur coats. Bushbuck are widespread but they’re solitary and shy; spot one in the open and you’ll have one of Africa’s most photogenic images. Sitatunga occupy swamps and woodland, making a great sight when they’re wading through deep water. We’ve always been mesmerized by them showing off their aquatic skills in the Okavango Delta.
With their flowing manes, the male nyala bulls are a thrilling sight in the lesser-visited reserves of Southern Africa, such as those in Zimbabwe. Critically-endangered bongo hide in the forests of Kenya and Uganda, contrasting the primates that swing nearby.
You’ll be forgiven for missing Africa’s smallest antelope. Barely 40cms high, dik dik easily merge into the savannah. Such a petite size and adorable frame means that this antelope receives many adoring safari fans, especially when you get to witness an infant. Unfortunately, they’re on the menu of cats, lizards, birds, and just about every other predator, making them secretive and shy. If you’re wondering about the unusual name, it’s onomatopoeic for their high-pitched whistled warning call.
Duiker are the type of animal that celebrates the diversity of Africa. There are 22 subspecies to find, each with stubby horns and beautiful markings. Many of these are now endemic to a single park and you’ll mostly find them in the forest.
Weighing close to a ton, eland are the largest of all Africa’s antelopes. They dapple parks across the continent although they like to shy away from noise, preferring to graze in remote parts of savannah or grassland. Their sharp spiralled horns can be breathtaking and while we’re fond of many antelopes, few impress us like the eland. Travel silently on a walking safari and you’ll be able to get much closer than on a game drive.
Gazelle are native to East Africa and are amongst the most abundant of all Africa’s antelopes. Close to half a million Thompson’s gazelle live on the Serengeti plains, while vast numbers of the larger Grant’s gazelle can be found in parks all across Kenya and Tanzania. Males have majestic ringed horns and the favourite safari image is of them skipping nimbly away from danger. Ears pop out, necks swivel, the sentinel raises an alarm, and hundreds of them start bounding across the grass.
Gemsbok and Beisa Oryx
Many antelopes have impressive horns, but these two species take the grandeur to new levels. Rising straight and true for almost a metre, the horns are dignified markers of status. They’re very closely related, Beisa oryx inhabiting Kenya and Tanzania, and gemsbok found on the arid savannahs of Southern Africa, especially Namibia where they grace the country’s coat of arms.
Regularly winning our vote for safari’s most bizarre sight, gerenuk are a little like a cross between a giraffe and gazelle. Standing on hind legs they stretch up and use their elongated necks to feed from the trees. Found in Tanzania and Kenya they’re one of those wonders that make safari such a unique experience. Remarkably, they never need to drink, having adapted to hydrate themselves through the water in the leaves they eat.
Scattered across East and Southern Africa, this towering antelope gathers in large herds. There are four subspecies to spot, each with fiery-coloured coats and slender faces. Southern Africa’s red hartebeest is a fabulous sight, while the endangered subspecies in Kenya come with an air of exclusivity.
We’ll never forget encountering an impala that jumped in zigzag patterns away from danger. It seemed to be patronising the leopard that followed in vein. These antelope leap incredibly high when they’re running from danger and sometimes the rumble of a safari vehicle sends them bounding across the plains. Impala are abundant across East Africa plus large areas of Southern Africa. You’re likely to see them in big herds, harems protected by a male with impressive horns.
Klipspringer are the dancers of Africa, nimble antelope that occupy rocks and cliffs across the continent. They deftly jump across vertical rock faces and perilous-looking boulders, always keeping their feet and easily evading the predators. They’re widespread but not abundant. Anyone watching them jumping at speed is in for an inspiring encounter.
With their twisted horns and wispy beards, male kudu create an adorable photo. This antelope loves the acacia and commiphora savannahs and you’ll usually find them hidden amongst the trees. Bachelor herds are our favourite sight, with males locking horns and the succession of beards fighting for the camera’s attention.
This small antelope mostly occupies the swamps and wetlands of Botswana and Zimbabwe. See a small herd and it’s not the most impressive of sights. But visit places like the Okavango Delta and you might see thousands of them splashing across the shallows. Most predators aren’t fond of the water, so lechwe wade in and start swimming when challenged.
Wandering across Southern Africa’s plains, reedbuck camouflage themselves with their silky brown coats. You’ll see them in small herds and be captivated by the ringed horns of dominant males. This is one of those great sights when you’re lounging at the camp and glance up from a book to see a mystical antelope grazing just a few metres away.
Sable and Roan Antelope
These large barrel-chested antelopes aren’t afraid to return your stare. See them on a walking safari and they will get your heart racing. We always like to watch males drop to their knees and clash heads, a thunderous echo ringing out as two battle for supremacy. Both species are found across Southern Africa, around open woodlands and on the edge of the savannah. Sable antelope have astonishing straightened horns and shimmering black and red fur, while roan antelope have mystical black and white faces.
Dutch settlers named this Southern African gazelle the ‘jumping antelope.’ There are still over a million of them in South Africa and they’re not restricted to national parks. You’ll see them around the Cape Peninsula, backdropped by the Table Mountain chain. Then when you go on South African safari you’ll find thousands of them forming mass herds.
Topi, Bontebok, Blesbok, and Tsessebe
These closely-related antelopes measure over a metre at the shoulder and can move at staggering speeds. They move in herds, constantly migrating to fresh grass. While other antelopes have much more striking colours and horns, you won’t forget spotting a herd of these large antelopes galloping on mass. Topi join the great wildebeest migration and are native to East Africa; tsessebe are their Southern African relative. Namibia’s Etosha is the best place to see the critically-endangered bontebok in the wild.