Bontebok (Damaliscus pygargus)

Also known as: Blesbok
Synonyms: Damaliscus dorcas
GenusDamaliscus (1)
SizeHead-body length: 140 – 160 cm (2)
Tail length: 30 – 45 cm (2)
Female weight: 55 – 70 kg (2)
Male weight: 65 – 80 kg (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Subspecies Damaliscus pygargus pygargus (bontebok) is classified as Near Threatened (NT) and Damaliscus pygargus phillipsi (blesbok) is classified as Least Concern (LC) (1). Subspecies D. p. pygargus is also listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

There are two very distinct subspecies of this handsome African antelope, the bontebok (D. p. pygargus) and the blesbok (D. p. phillipsi), both of which are extinct as wild animals and owe their survival to their existence in National Parks, game reserves, and on farms. Their body is compact with a short neck and long narrow face (2), and both sexes carry simple, lyre-shaped horns, although the female’s are more slender (4). The beautiful bontebok, perhaps the rarest antelope in southern Africa (5), has a rich brown coat with a purplish gloss, and a distinctive white face, white buttocks, white belly and white ‘socks’ (2). The white facial blaze is usually unbroken which distinguishes it from the blesbok, whose white blaze is normally broken by a brown band between the eyes (4). The blesbok also differs by having a dull reddish-brown coat, which lacks the purple gloss, with lighter brown buttocks and off-white lower legs (2).

Historically, the bontebok was restricted to the coastal plain of the southwestern Cape, South Africa (1), between Bot River (near Hermanus) in the west and Mossel Bay in the east (6), but it is now restricted to the Bontebok National Park and a few reserves and private farms within that same area. The largest single population occurs in De Hoop Nature Reserve near Bredasdorp (4).

Formerly, the blesbok occurred on the highveld of South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho (1), but due to hunting they were exterminated from Swaziland and Lesotho before 1900, and by the late 19th century, populations in South Africa were also reduced (5). Since then, numbers have recovered on farms and game reserves and they have been introduced to areas far beyond their natural range, (Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe) (1), but they are only found on enclosed land (4).

The bontebok inhabits coastal grass plains with fynbos vegetation, whereas the blesbok inhabits open grasslands of southern African highveld (1) (2).

Both the bontebok and blesbok are grazing antelopes that spend their day feeding on short grass. They are less active during the hotter midday hours and routinely stand in groups facing the sun, frequently nodding their lowered heads (4).

Bontebok adult males defend territories all year round (5), marking them with dung and urine (2), and chasing away any intruding males from large bachelor herds of young males that roam at will (5). Small nursery herds of two to eight females and their young commonly remain with the same territorial male all year round, which is an interesting feature of bontebok territoriality (6). The territorial males encourage any passing females to stay by carrying out a special sexual display (5). Blesboks have a similar social structure to the bontebok, with a few noticeable differences. Nursery herds are generally larger, consisting of up to 25 females (2), and adult males do not maintain their territories during winter and spring. During this cold, dry season very large mixed-age groups of up to 650 animals may be formed. In order to conserve energy during this period of scarce food, there is little activity of any kind (5).

Bonteboks mate between January and March (5), with lambs being born from September to October (4), while blesbok mating peaks in April (2), and most lambs are born from November to January (4). Both subspecies have an eight month gestation period and their young are up and mobile within an hour or two of birth. Females mature in about two years and can live for up to 17 years (2)

Hunting for their meat and skins has bought both these subspecies close to the brink of extinction in the past. Bontebok numbers were severely reduced by the 1830s, but luckily farmers in the Bredasdorp area had the foresight to enclose the remaining wild bontebok on their land, saving this subspecies from extinction (5). Blesbok, which were hunted in their thousands, were also saved by protection on farms and game reserves (5). While hunting and trade of both subspecies still occurs, this is believed to be strictly controlled and so no longer a threat (1). Today, the main threat is hybridisation between the bontebok and blesbok (1), which, while this does not threaten the existence of the species, could result in the loss of these distinct and unique subspecies.

While the bontebok and blesbok sadly no longer roam wild in South Africa, the species’ survival is now much more secure (2), although somewhat dependent on the continued existence of the farms and game reserves on which they occur. Both subspecies also occur in protected areas (1); one of which was created in 1931 to protect the last 30 bontebok left in the wild, the Bontebok National Park, South Africa (7).

For further information on the bontebok and blesbok see:

Authenticated (11/04/08) by Dr Jeremy David.

  1. IUCN Red List (December, 2009)