Gemsbok (Oryx gazella)

Also known as: oryx
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderCetartiodactyla
FamilyBovidae
GenusOryx (1)
SizeLength: 198 – 216 cm (2)
Male weight: 240 kg (2)
Female weight: 210 kg (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The most distinctive features of this heavily built antelope are its long, rapier-shaped horns and striking black and white facial markings (2). The beautiful horns of the gemsbok are sought after as charms in many cultures and were even sold as unicorn horns in medieval England (3). The body is fawn-grey with a black stripe along the side separating the upperparts from the white underparts, and there are extensive black areas on its upper legs (2). The gemsbok has a long, horse-like tail, and whilst both sexes possess the impressive horns, those of the male are shorter and more robust than the female’s. Gemsbok calves lack any black body markings (2).

The gemsbok has an extensive, although patchy, distribution in south-west Africa, occurring in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe (1). It also occurred in Angola, although is believed to be extinct there now (1).

Gemsboks generally occur in semi-arid to arid grasslands and bushlands, sandy and stony plains, dunes and alkaline flats; they also inhabit light woodland (2) (4).

The gemsbok is remarkably adapted to its arid environment; particularly noteworthy is its ability to survive without drinking water for most of the year (4). It conserves water within its body by lying in the shade during the hottest part of the day, and restricts activity to early mornings, late afternoons or the cool nights. The gemsbok does not waste precious moisture on panting or sweating, but instead allows its body temperature to rise by a few degrees above normal on hot days (4).

Gemsboks are gregarious animals, usually found in herds of up to 30 individuals (2), but occasionally herds of several hundred animals can be encountered as they move to fresh grazing grounds (2). Gemsbok feed primarily on grass but when this is not available they will browse on shrubs, trees and herbs (5). During periods of drought, they obtain moisture from roots and tubers which are dug up with their hooves (5).

From the age of five or six, male gemsboks establish territories. These territories are around 25 square kilometres and may be defended for up to three years (2). During this period, the male rounds up herds of females and young gemsbok into his territory to gain sole mating rights with receptive females (2). Single calves are born to females older than two years (4), after a pregnancy of around 264 days (5). The calf remains hidden during the day, but may venture out at night with the mother to a new site. At three to six weeks of age, the calf will join the herd (2). Gemsboks have a lifespan of around twenty years (5).

The gemsbok has suffered population and range declines in the past due to its habitat being encroached upon by humans and their livestock (1) (2) (5). Today, however, there are thought to be no major threats to this species, with population numbers stable, or, in certain areas, increasing (1).

The gemsbok is highly valued as a trophy animal and is an important component of game hunting activities. Ironically, it is this hunting activity, and the economic contribution it makes to the countries in which it occurs, which ensures that population numbers are maintained (1). The majority of the population currently occurs within national parks and private land, and whilst the gemsbok is not considered to yet be threatened with extinction, it is somewhat reliant on its continued existence within these areas (1).

For further information on the gemsbok see:

Authenticated (29/03/10) by Dr. David Mallon, Co-Chair, IUCN/SSC Antelope Specialist Group.

  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2009)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. Stuart, C. and Stuart, T. (1997) Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Africa. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
  3. African Wildlife Foundation (September, 2007)
    http://www.awf.org/content/wildlife/detail/oryx
  4. Mills, G. and Hes, L. (1997) The Complete Book of Southern African Mammals. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
  5. Kingdon, J. (1997) The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. Academic Press, San Diego.