Black wildebeest (Connochaetes gnou)

Also known as: white-tailed gnu
Synonyms: Antilope capensis, Antilope gnou, Antilope gnu, Bos connochaetes, Bos gnou, Catoblepas operculatus
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderCetartiodactyla
FamilyBovidae
GenusConnochaetes (1)
SizeMale total length: 212 - 242 cm (2)
Female total length: 213 - 223 cm (2)
Male shoulder height: 111 - 121 cm (2)
Female shoulder height: 106 - 116 cm (2)
Tail length: 31.5 - 44.5 cm (2)
Adult weight: 100 - 180 kg (3)
Weight at birth: 11 - 22 kg (2) (4)
Top facts

The black wildebeest is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A large and distinctive antelope, the black wildebeest (Connochaetes gnou) is the southernmost species of its genus. Its northern relative, the blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus), is well known for its spectacular migrations, but the remaining black wildebeest populations no longer migrate (2).

The black wildebeest is a dark brown- to black-bodied antelope with an erect mane. This species gets one of its common names, ‘white-tailed gnu’, from its long white tail, which is black only at the base (2) (3) (4) (5). Both male and female black wildebeest have heavy, forward-curving horns (2) (4) (5), which in mature males are expanded at the base to form a shield over the top of the head (2) (3). Black wildebeest calves are born with shaggy, fawn-coloured fur (2).

The head of the black wildebeest is large and boxy, and the face, throat and chest are covered in bristly tufts of long, black hair (2) (3) (4). The front end of the black wildebeest’s body is heavily built, and the shoulders are higher than the hindquarters (3).

The black wildebeest can be distinguished from the blue wildebeest (C. taurinus) by its white rather than black tail (3). The alternative name of these two species, ‘gnu’, comes from the male’s characteristic nasal call, described as ‘ge-nu’ (2) (3) (4).

The black wildebeest is distributed within South Africa, Swaziland, and Lesotho. After recovering from huge population declines in the 19th century, it was reintroduced to Lesotho and Swaziland, and has also been introduced into Namibia (1) (6).

The black wildebeest lives on open plains, grasslands and Karoo shrublands (1) (3). These high central plateau grasslands consist of flat to rolling hills, as well as mountainous areas. The altitudes in these regions range from 1,350 to 2,150 metres (1)(6).

Black wildebeest are primarily grazers, eating grass and occasionally karroid shrubs and herbs (2) (3) (4). Grass makes up more than 90 percent of this species’ diet (6), and it prefers to graze on short grass, generally avoiding areas where the vegetation is longer and more mature (2). Water is preferred every day, but the black wildebeest may go several days without if it is unavailable (5). This species is most active in the early morning and late afternoon, resting during the hottest hours of the day (2) (4).

Before European settlement, the black wildebeest migrated in both east-west and north-south directions, probably following the rains and changing food availability. However, unlike the blue wildebeest (C. taurinus), it has not been known to migrate in mass numbers, and is now non-migratory as it is mostly confined to game reserves and farms (2) (5).

The breeding season of the black wildebeest varies slightly between different locations, but births usually peak from around November to December or January, after the first rains (2) (4) (5) (6). Most births occur within a two- to three-week period (2) (4). The female’s gestation period is just over eight months, and each female gives birth to a single calf (2) (3) (4) (5), which can stand up and follow the herd very soon after birth (3) (4). The large, curved horns of the adult black wildebeest start out straight in calves (3).

Black wildebeest calves are weaned by about nine months old and reach sexual maturity at about two years for females and three years for males (2) (4), although only males of four years and older are able to acquire a territory (2). The black wildebeest can live for around 19 years or more in captivity (2).

Adult male black wildebeest tend to live solitary lives or form small bachelor groups with other males. Females tend to be more aggressive than males, with male territorial displays consisting largely of only ritualised combat, and severe fights being rare (4) (5) (6). Female black wildebeest live in small herds with their young, and members of the herd show strong attachments to each other (2). Only territorial males can mate, and these males attempt to herd females into their territory (3) (4).

Predators of the black wildebeest include lions, hyaenas, leopards and wild dogs, but most black wildebeest populations now occur in game reserves with few large predators, meaning predation on this species is quite low (2). When disturbed by a human, wildebeest often prance about, paw at the ground and thrash their tails, or snort and dash off to a short distance away before turning to face the intruder. Both wildebeest species are fast runners, and have been recorded reaching speeds of around 80 kilometres per hour (4).

The main threats to the black wildebeest used to be hunting, habitat loss and periodic disease outbreaks (1). By the end of the 19th century, hunting and habitat loss had nearly exterminated this species’ once vast population, but a few individuals remained on private farms in South Africa. The black wildebeest has now recovered as a result of conservation efforts and its numbers are increasing (1) (2) (3) (4).

Currently, the only significant threat to the black wildebeest is the problem of hybridisation with the blue wildebeest (C. taurinus), which can occur when the two species are kept together on fenced land. The hybrids are known to be fertile (1).

About 20 percent of the black wildebeest population occurs in protected areas, with around 80 percent on private farmland and conservancies (1). This species has also been bred successfully in a number of zoos around the world (2). The largest conservation need at present is to prevent the blue wildebeest and black wildebeest from occurring in the same area, to avoid hybridisation (1).

Find out more about the black wildebeest:

More information on conservation in Africa:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2013)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. von Richter, W. (1974) Connochaetes gnou. Mammalian Species, 50: 1-6. Available at:
    http://www.science.smith.edu/msi/pdf/i0076-3519-050-01-0001.pdf
  3. Stuart, C. and Stuart, T. (2001) Field Guide to Mammals of Southern Africa. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
  4. Nowak, R.M. (1991) Walker’s Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
  5. Stuart, C. and Stuart, T. (2000) Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Africa. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
  6. Grove, C.P. and Leslie Jr, D.M. (2011) Family Bovidae (Hollow-horned ruminants). In: Wilson, D.E. and Mittermeier, R.A. (Eds.) Handbook of the Mammals of the World. Volume 2: Hoofed Mammals. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.