Images: Andrew Hankey

Bushbucks are a species of antelope found in Sub-Saharan Africa, belonging to the family Bovidae. They are known for their distinctive reddish-brown to dark brown coats with white stripes and spots, and their ability to adapt to a variety of habitats, from dense forests to open savannas.

Description/How to recognize a bushbuck

The bushbuck is a medium-sized antelope belonging to the family Bovidae. They have a compact, muscular build and stand at a shoulder height of 70–80 cm Male bushbucks are larger than the females, with an average mass of 45 kg (up to 77 kg), while females have an average mass of about 30 kg (up to 60 kg). Males possess spiral horns that are slightly ridged, with an average length of 26 cm, ranging up to 45 (54.3) cm. Their face may or may not have a broad, white stripe between the forehead and the nose and a dark patch around the eyes.

The bushbuck has large, rounded ears and a keen sense of hearing and smell to help detect predators. The colouration of their coats range from chestnut to dark brown, with white lines and spots on the flanks to a greater or lesser extent. The males’ lower legs are lighter in colour than the body coat. The bushbuck’s coat provides excellent camouflage in their natural habitat, and they also have a short, bushy tail with white underside.

Getting around

They are active during the day and night and are generally solitary or found in small groups. Bushbucks are known to be territorial and will mark their territories with their scent and visual cues such as broken branches.

Communicating

The bushbuck makes a variety of different sounds and calls that are used for communication within their social groups. The bark, which is emitted by both males and females, is a distinctive, powerful, resonant sound that can travel a considerable distance. It acts as a warning signal to other members of the group of prospective risks or the presence of predators.

Bushbucks may emit short, sharp snorts as an extra warning signal when disturbed or startled. Males generate a succession of grunts and groans as part of their wooing display throughout the mating season. These vocalisations are used to attract females and establish dominance over other males in the vicinity.

Distribution

Bushbucks have a wide distribution throughout Africa, ranging from Senegal and Gambia in the west to Ethiopia and Somalia in the east, and from southern Sudan and Uganda in the north to South Africa in the south. 

Habitat

Bushbucks are adapted to a variety of habitats, including forests, woodlands, savannas and riverine areas. They are most commonly found in dense forests and thickets, where they can take cover from predators, but they can also be found in more open habitats such as savannas and grasslands. The distribution and habitat of bushbucks are closely tied to the availability of suitable vegetation and water resources, as well as the presence of predators and other potential threats. In general, bushbucks prefer areas with dense vegetation cover, as they rely on this cover to hide from predators and to find food. Bushbucks are also adapted to living near water sources, as they require regular access to drinking water.

Food

The diet of a bushbuck reflects its role as a selective browser and they favour the consumption of leaves, shoots, fruits and flowers over grasses. They occasionally consume grasses, fungi and herbs, particularly when browse are scarce. While grasses do not constitute a significant portion of their diet, this occasional dietary addition showcases the bushbuck’s adaptability and highlights the intricacies of their foraging behaviour.

SEX and LIFE CYCLES Sex

Bushbucks have distinct mating habits and life cycles. During the mating season, the timing of which varies depending on the region, males compete for dominance and access to females. Dominant males establish territories and engage in displays of strength and aggression to assert their reproductive rights.

Mating rituals often involve males marking their territories with scent from facial glands and engaging in impressive displays, such as parallel walking and circling. Females, known as ewes, choose a dominant male based on these displays and scent cues. After successful mating, the gestation period of a bushbuck lasts approximately six to seven months (180 days). The female gives birth to a single calf, which is typically well-developed and able to stand and walk shortly after birth. The mother hides the newborn in dense vegetation for protection and periodically returns to nurse and groom it. The calf relies on its mother’s milk for the first few months but gradually starts to consume solid food such as leaves and shoots as it grows older. It remains under the care and guidance of the mother until it gains independence, which occurs around the age of one year. Bushbucks can live up to 10 to 12 years in the wild, although some individuals may reach even longer lifespans if conditions are favourable.

Family life

Bushbucks typically live alone rather than in huge groups. Within their preferred habitat, which might include dense forests and thickets, they frequently establish tiny home ranges and maintain separate territories. Bushbucks defend their territory against entering members of the same sex and leave scent traces to indicate their presence there. Their contacts with other bushbucks in their home region may be tolerated, although they typically only engage in mating rituals or territorial conflicts. Female bushbucks, however, might be more accepting of one another’s presence, and moms might care for their young close to one another.

THE BIG PICTURE

Friends and Foes

Bushbucks are often attracted to fruit and leaves dropped by baboons and monkeys. Pythons and large and medium-sized carnivores prey on them.

Smart Strategies

Bushbucks employ several smart strategies to enhance their survival in their natural habitat. They can blend in with their surroundings without being seen by predators thanks to their reddish- to dark brown coats that are covered in white patches and stripes. They are skilled at hiding in thickets, using their agility and leaping prowess to move quickly through the bushes and get away from any danger. As predominantly browsers, bushbucks can adjust their diet to the availability of food supplies by eating a variety of foliage at various heights. They can quickly react to potential threats thanks to their alert demeanour, acute senses, particularly keen hearing and eyesight, and ability to spot predators. Bushbucks are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dusk and dawn.

Poorer world without me

Through herbivory, bushbucks help to preserve the ecological balance of its ecosystem. They selectively consume fruits, shoots and foliage, which helps to regulate plant development and prevent the dominance of particular species. This browsing practice encourages plant diversity and improves the ecosystem’s general health. Bushbucks unintentionally contribute to seed distribution by eating fruits and plant matter. The bushbuck’s digestive tract allow seeds to pass through and then they deposit them in other places through excrement. By assisting plants in settling in new areas, this technique aids in the spread and distribution of various plant species within the environment. Bushbucks assist in the nutrient cycling process in the ecosystem by ingesting food and then excreting it. They digest and release the nutrients from the vegetation they eat back into the environment through their faeces. This procedure aids in replenishing soil nutrients, which promotes plant growth and ecosystem productivity as a whole. A wide range of predators, including large carnivores like lions, leopards and hyenas, prey on bushbucks.

People & I

Bushbucks hold significant symbolism for several clans in Africa. It is considered a totem animal, and consuming its meat is prohibited due to a belief that it causes severe body swelling. As totems are associated with supernatural beings, they can be kept as pets and are treated with religious reverence. It is also believed that the mystical power contained within the horns of bushbucks is linked to wooden sculptures capable of coming to life and practice sorcery. These power figures, known for their strength in safeguarding entire communities, adorn themselves with bushbuck horns.

Conservation status and what the future holds

According to IUCN and SA Red List, the bushbuck is a Least Concern (LC) species. When dense bush near waterways is poorly managed or surrounded by forestry plantations or farms, bushbucks are vulnerable to habitat loss. The overuse of bush by domestic livestock and elephant may damage the bushbuck’s habitat. They are poached for meat and fur, using dogs or snares, and, males especially, are a target animal in the trophy hunting industry.

RELATIVES

The currently accepted name in South Africa is Tragelaphus scriptus, however, some classifications split the species into the northern T. scriptus in the strict sense (then called the harnessed bushbuck or northern bushbuck) and the southern Tragelaphus sylvaticus (an unresolved name, commonly called Cape bushbuck or southern bushbuck). Within the Tragelaphus genus, there are several other species found in different regions of Africa, including sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekii), nyala (Tragelaphus angasii), lesser kudu (Tragelaphus imberbis) and greater kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros).

References and further reading

  • Allsopp, R. 1971. The population dynamics and social biology of bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus Pallas). Nairobi.
  • Apps, P. 2012. Mammals of southern Africa, A field guide. Struik Nature, Cape Town.
  • Bothma, J. d. P., & Du Toit, J.G. 2016. Game Ranch Management. Van Schaik Publishers, Pretoria.
  • Cillié, B. 2017. Mammal guide of southern Africa. Briza, South Africa; Sunbird Images, Professional Nature Apps.
  • Downs, C., & Coates, G. 2005. Survey of the status and management of sympatric bushbuck and nyala in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. South African Journal of Wildlife Research 35,2: 179–190.
  • Furstenburg, D. 2010. Focus on the bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus). SA Hunter 02037:34–36.
  • Gumo, S., Gisege, S.O., Raballah, E. & Ouma, C. 2012. Communicating African spirituality through ecology: challenges and prospects for the 21st Century. Religions 3,2: 523–543.
  • IUCN SSC Antelope Specialist Group. 2016. Tragelaphus scriptus (errata version published in 2017). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22051A115165242. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22051A50196111.en.
  • Jacobsen, N. 1974. Distribution, home range and behaviour patterns of bushbuck in the Lupeto and Sengwe valleys, Rhodesia. J. sth. Afr, Wildl. Mgmt. Ass 4,2: 75–90.
  • MacLeod, S., Kerley, G. & Gaylard, A. 1996. Habitat and diet of bushbuck, Tragelaphus scriptus, in Woody Cape Nature Reserve: observations from faecal analysis. South African Journal of Wildlife Research 26,1: 19–26.
  • Stuart, C. & M. 2015. Stuart’s field guide to mammals of southern Africa, 5th edition, Fully revised and expanded. Struik Nature, Cape Town.

Author: Mutovholwa Reliance Nenzhelele

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