Puku (Kobus vardonii)
|Size||Head-body length: 126 - 146 cm (2) (3)|
Tail length: 28 - 32 cm (3)
Shoulder height: 73 - 83 cm (2)
Horn length: 52 cm (4)
Male weight: 67 - 78 kg (2)
Female weight: 47 - 80 kg (2)
- Only male pukus have horns.
- When alarmed, the puku may give a shrill, repeated whistle.
- Around 75% of the puku’s entire world population occurs in one location, in the Kilombero Valley in Tanzania.
- Male pukus hold small territories, with each male attempting to keep herds of females on its territory for as long as possible.
- To avoid predators, puku calves lie hidden in vegetation for the first few weeks of life.
The puku is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).
A medium-sized antelope, the puku (Kobus vardonii) has a bright golden-yellow to reddish-brown coat with shaggy, somewhat curly fur along its back and loins (2) (3) (4). Its legs are uniformly reddish-brown, and it has black tips to its large, furry ears (4). The underparts and throat of the puku are white (2).
The puku has a robust, bluntly rounded head, a large black nose and black eyelashes, and white markings around the eyes and mouth. The tail has a black tuft of hair at the tip (2) (5) (6).
Horns are present only in the male puku, and are black, stout and relatively short, with heavy ridges and a slightly lyre-shaped curve (2) (3) (5) (6) (7).
The puku formerly occupied grasslands near permanent water sources in the savanna woodlands and floodplains of south-central Africa. However, its range has been much reduced and it now occurs in fragmented, isolated populations (1) (8).
Large numbers of pukus only now occur in two countries, Tanzania and Zambia, with smaller populations in Angola, Botswana, Malawi and the southern Democratic Republic of the Congo (1) (3) (7) (8). Around 75 percent of the global puku population is restricted to the Kilombero Valley in Tanzania (1) (8) (9) (10).
The puku occupies grassland habitats near permanent water sources, including moist savanna, floodplains, and the margins of lakes, swamps and rivers (1) (3) (7). However, although it is associated with wet, swampy areas, the puku tends to avoid deep standing water (1).
The puku is a social species, preferring to live in groups. Females usually live in groups around 3 to 15 strong, with their young of both sexes, while adult males typically live in bachelor groups. However, smaller herds comprising both males and females will join together during the dry season to form groups of 50 or more (5). Mature male pukus are territorial, defending small territories through which the females move (2) (7).
Pukus usually move to slightly higher elevations during the wet season, when water levels are high, and down to lower elevations closer to the water’s edge during the dry season (5). Like most antelopes, the puku is likely to be most active in the morning and evening (7). This species grazes on grass (1) (2).
Although it may breed throughout the year (2) (5), in some areas the puku gives birth mainly during the wet season, when most food is available and there is enough cover for the calves, which lie hidden to avoid predators (2) (11). The young are born after an eight to nine month gestation period (2) (5), but have a high mortality rate (5). Female pukus become sexually mature at about two years old, and males at about three years (2).
The main threats to the puku are illegal hunting and habitat fragmentation due to expanding human settlement and conversion into cultivated land (1) (8). The social and breeding systems of the puku are particularly vulnerable to hunting and to the disruption and fragmentation of its habitat, which can prevent successful breeding (1).
The puku is quite easy to approach during the dry season, when it comes together in larger groups on floodplains, making it vulnerable to poaching. Unsustainable hunting is thought to have caused the loss of the puku across much of its historic range (1) (8).
In the Kilombero Valley, where the largest number of pukus are found, this species is under threat from habitat degradation caused by overgrazing by domestic cattle, agricultural encroachment, expansion of human settlements and the conversion of nearby miombo woodland into farms and teak plantations. During the wet season, the pukus move to the boundaries of the floodplain, potentially bringing them into greater conflict with local people and cattle (9) (10). Further conversion of natural vegetation around the floodplain boundaries may reduce suitable habitat and impact on the puku’s seasonal movements (9).
In other areas, such as Lake Rukwa in Tanzania, the puku has been found to avoid habitats used by pastoralists, restricting it to the central parts of the floodplain (12).
Although puku populations are scattered into small pockets in various countries, it has been estimated that about one-third of the population occurs in protected areas, the most important of which is the Kilombero Valley in Tanzania. Other areas important to the survival of the puku include Katavi-Rukwa in Tanzania, Kafue, the Luangwa Valley and Nsumbu-Tondwa-Mweru Wantipa in Zambia, and the smaller populations in Kasungu National Park in Malawi and Chobe National Park in Botswana (1) (8).
The puku is considered a ‘flagship’ species for conservation in the Kasanka National Park in Zambia, where its population has increased after improved anti-poaching efforts (13). In Rukwa Game Reserve in Tanzania, the puku population has declined, and regular monitoring and law enforcement have been recommended (12).
As the Kilombero Valley holds most of the global population of the puku, any future changes to this species’ status there would have a significant impact on its overall conservation status (1) (8). Within this area, the puku occurs in the Kilombero Game Controlled Area, where trophy hunting is controlled but other human impacts are not regulated (9) (10). In addition to protecting key habitats in the centre of the valley, surrounding habitat on the edges of the floodplain also needs to be conserved (9).
The Kilombero Valley is now designated as a Ramsar site, or a Wetland of International Importance (14). However, more information is still needed on the biology and behaviour of the puku in this area, and the conservation status of puku populations in other locations also needs to be further assessed (9).
Find out more about the puku:
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- Gestation: the state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
- Miombo woodland: a type of woodland extending from Tanzania to northern South Africa, which is dominated by trees in the genus Brachystegia.
- Territorial: describes an animal, a pair of animals or a colony that occupies and defends an area.
- Territory: an area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a colony.
IUCN Red List (July, 2012)
- Apps, P. (2000) Smithers’ Mammals of Southern Africa: A Field Guide. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
- Macdonald, D.W. (2006) The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Lydekker, R. (1908) The Game Animals of Africa. R. Ward Ltd., London.
- Kingdon, J. (1988) East African Mammals: An Atlas of Evolution in Africa. Volume 3, Part D: Bovids. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Groves, C.P. and Leslie Jr, D.M. (2011) Family Bovidae. In: Wilson, D.E. and Mittermeier, R.A. (Eds.) Handbook of the Mammals of the World. Volume 2: Hoofed Mammals. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
- Nowak, R.M. (1991) Walker’s Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
East, R. (1999) African Antelope Database 1998. IUCN/SSC Antelope Specialist Group, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. Available at:
- Jenkins, R.K.B., Maliti, H.T. and Corti, G.R. (2003) Conservation of the puku antelope (Kobus vardoni, Livingstone) in the Kilombero Valley, Tanzania. Biodiversity and Conservation, 12: 787-797.
- Jenkins, R.K.B., Corti, G.R., Fanning, E. and Roettcher, K. (2002) Management implications of antelope habitat use in the Kilombero Valley, Tanzania. Oryx, 36(2): 161-169.
- Rosser, A.M. (1989) Environmental and reproductive seasonality of puku, Kobus vardoni, in Luangwa Valley, Zambia. African Journal of Ecology, 27(1): 77-88.
- Waltert, M., Chuwa, M. and Kiffner, C. (2009) An assessment of the puku (Kobus vardonii Livingstone 1857) population at Lake Rukwa, Tanzania. African Journal of Ecology, 47: 688-692.
- Goldspink, C.R., Holland, R.K., Sweet, G. and Stjernstedt, R. (1998) A note on the distribution and abundance of puku, Kobus vardoni Livingstone, in Kasanka National Park, Zambia. African Journal of Ecology, 36: 23-33.
The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (July, 2012)