Hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus)

Also known as: Swayne’s hartebeest and kongoni
GenusAlcelaphus (1)
SizeHead-body length: 160 – 215 cm (2)
Tail length: 30 – 70 cm (2)
Male weight: 125 – 218 kg (2)
Female weight: 116 – 185 kg (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Eight subspecies of the hartebeest are now recognised: Alcelaphus buselaphus caama, Alcelaphus buselaphus cokii and Alcelaphus buselaphus lichtensteinii are classified as Least Concern (LC), Alcelaphus buselaphus major is classified as Near Threatened (NT), Alcelaphus buselaphus lelwel and Alcelaphus buselaphus swaynei are classified as Endangered (EN), Alcelaphus buselaphus tora is classified as Critically Endangered (CR), and Alcelaphus buselaphus buselaphus is classified as Extinct (EX) (1).

This large, high-shouldered antelope is one of the grazing mammals that formerly ranged in huge herds, shaping the vast grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa (3). The hartebeest has long legs, a short neck, long, narrow face and long, pointed ears (2). Despite being a little ungainly in appearance, the hartebeest is actually a nimble and fast runner (4), capable of reaching speeds of 70 kilometres per hour (5). Its short coat varies considerably in colour, from red, black or tan to golden brown (2), and its tail has long dark brown to black hairs on the outer surface (4). Both the male and female have horns that are set close together at the base, curve slightly forward and outwards and then point back inwards. The bottom two-thirds of the horns have distinctive rings and those of the female are more slender. The taxonomy of the hartebeest is somewhat complex, with several living subspecies, all of which are more or less separated by their distribution, horn structure and coat colour (4).

The hartebeest used to range over all African grasslands and savannas (2), but now has a fragmented distribution. A. b. major occurs in West Africa, from Senegal to western Chad; A. b. lelwel ranges from western Chad into East Africa, A. b. cokii is restricted to Kenya and Tanzania, and A. b. caama occurs in Angola, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. A. b. tora only occurs in eastern Sudan and adjoining northern Ethiopia, and the endangered A. b. swaynei has a limited range in Ethiopia and adjacent Somalia (4). A. b. lichtensteinii (known as Lichtenstein’s hartebeest) now occurs in areas of Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia (1). A. b. buselaphus occurred in North Africa until its extinction in the 1920s (6).

Inhabits open savanna country and wooded grassland, sometimes moving into more arid habitat after rains (4).

The hartebeest feeds on grasses, its narrow head suited to selecting the lush grass leaves from amongst the poor quality stems and stalks (5). They are gregarious animals that are normally seen feeding in herds of around 20, but when there is an abundance of fresh grass, hundreds or even thousands may gather. In arid areas they will travel vast distances in search of fresh grass (4).

Adult males are territorial and mark out an area with dung (2), with herds of females and their young moving between male territories and staying temporarily within those that contain the best quality grazing. Non-territorial males form loose bachelor herds and occupy the area around territories which often have poor quality grazing (4).

In some areas, breeding occurs only during a short period during the rains and most males only become territorial during this time. In other areas, breeding occurs throughout the year and males defend territories continuously (2). A single young is born after an eight month gestation period and remains hidden until it is strong enough to keep up with the herd (2) (4). Hartebeest reach sexual maturity between one and four years of age and live for up to 19 years (2).

While many of the subspecies of the hartebeest still occur in substantial numbers, populations have declined (4), and the tora hartebeest (A. b. tora), Swayne’s hartebeest (A. b. swaynei) and Lelwel hartebeest (A. b. lelwel) today occur at low levels and are in danger of extinction (1) (2). This has largely been the result of hunting and competition with cattle; the hartebeest is easy to hunt and is sought after for its tasty meat, and hartebeest populations have declined in areas of intensive cattle-keeping. The extinction of the bubal hartebeest (A. b. buselaphus) should serve as a warning about the vulnerability of this species to such threats (2).

There are no known specific conservation measures in place for the hartebeest at present. However, it does occur in several protected areas throughout its range, including Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, a World Heritage Site (7), and this may offer some protection from the threats that are causing declines in the hartebeest. Survival of Swayne’s hartebeest in Ethiopia does however depend on improved protection of the remaining populations. Surveys of the endangered tora hartebeest are also urgently required to determine its distribution, and subsequently to develop and implement protective measures (6).

For further information on the hartebeest see:


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  1. IUCN Red List (December, 2007)
  2. Kingdon, J. (1997) The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. Academic Press Limited, London.
  3. Alden, P.C., Estes, R.D., Schlitter, D. and McBride, B. (1996) Collins Guide to African Wildlife. HarperCollins Publishers, London.
  4. Stuart, C. and Stuart, T. (1997) Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of South Africa. Struik Publishers, London.
  5. Mills, G. and Hes, L. (1997) The Complete Book of Southern African Mammals. Struik Publishers, London.
  6. East, R. (1999) African Antelope Database 1998. IUCN/SSC Antelope Specialist Group, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.
  7. UNEP-WCMC: Serengeti National Park, Tanzania (December, 2007)