Derivation of scientific name

The combination of the Greek word lophos, which means ‘crest’, and the New Latin word cephal, which means ‘head’, is most likely where the scientific name ‘Cephalophinae’ originated.

Common names: Red forest duiker, red duiker, Natal duiker, Natal red duiker (Eng.); rooiduiker (Afr.); umsumbi (Siswati): phithi (Tshivenda); umsumpe (isiZulu).

The red forest duiker (Cephalophus natalensis) is a small herbivorous antelope found from east-central to eastern southern Africa. The red forest duiker look similar to the common duiker but is smaller and its coat is more reddish-brown in colour. Throughout its habitat, the red forest duiker is heavily targeted for bushmeat. They prefer more densely shrubby habitats than the common duiker and are more diurnal and less secretive than other forest duikers, making them easier to spot. Compared to other ungulates, red forest duikers have remarkable jumping abilities, crossing nets up to 1.3 m high. The common name ‘duiker’ comes from the Afrikaans word duik or the Dutch word duiken, both meaning ‘to dive’, referring to the antelope’s habit of diving into vegetation for protection.


The red forest duiker grow to a length of 1 m, weighs on average 14 kg, and has a shoulder height of about 43 cm. Both males and females have short, straight horns roughly 6 cm in length, though females’ horns may be smaller and thinner. Towards the base of the horns are longitudinal stripes and rough rings; towards the tip, the stripes are smoother. The longest known horn length found in red forest duiker is 11 cm. Its upperparts are a rich reddish-brown colour while the underparts are paler in colour. Typically, white hair can be found on the chin, throat, and inside the ears. The tip of the tail is white, and it has tufts of black and reddish-brown hair in between its horns. The reddish-brown or tawny red coat makes it easy to identify. Age causes the little antelope’s off-white throat, ears, chin, and nape to turn ash grey. The red forest duiker’s face is a slightly darker colour than its body.

Getting around

The red forest duiker has four legs, which end in small hooves. It has two distinguishing physical characteristics that is of interest in how it moves: It has a bent back, and its front legs are shorter than its hind legs. With their long, crouching hind legs, duikers can swiftly dive into surrounding bushes when they feel danger and need to escape. In addition, they are very extremely good jumpers, a skill that comes in handy when being pursued by predators and humans.


Red forest duikers use four senses to communicate: 1) auditory (hearing), 2) visual (sight), 3) olfactory (smell) and 4) tactile (touch). The flicking of the tail is the primary mode with which it communicates imminent danger. Due to the quiet and secretive nature of the red forest duiker, there is not much vocalisation. It does however have a distinctive loud, penetrating cry, which ranges between a whistle and a snort, which is usually only used in times of crisis when the animal is threatened or in distress.

Similarly, lambs only communicate with the adults when they are threatened, in the form of a distress call, to which both the male and female will respond. The majority of the red forest duiker’s communication strategy is chemical through scent marking. They have maxillary glands near their eyes, which secretes a substance that they rub against grass, bark and other surfaces, thus marking their territorial boundaries. At times they will even mark their mate and offspring.


The red forest duiker is found from east-central to eastern southern Africa. It is generally confined to escarpments, montane forests, riverine and coastal forests, and thickets from southeast Tanzania to northeastern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa and isolated populations can be found on the escarpment in Mpumalanga, South Africa. Duikers are still widespread and common, despite intensive hunting and trapping for the bush meat trade, although they are rarely seen over most of their range due to their secretive nature.


Red forest duikers can be found in native forests and thickets throughout their range, including coastal, riverine, swamp and montane forests and scrub and wooded ravines. Their habitat in South Africa includes the forests of the east coast from KwaZulu-Natal to Umzumbe, with isolated populations in montane forest patches on the Mpumalanga escarpment.


Duikers are primarily browsers, eating leaves, shoots, seeds, fruit, buds and bark, and they often follow flocks of birds or groups of monkeys to take advantage of the fruit they drop. They supplement their diet with meat by sometimes eating insects and carrion, and they can even catch rodents or small birds.


Red forest duikers are monogamous (they find a life partner and companion); the pair stays together year-round and spends a lot of time together during the mating season. They are non-seasonal breeders; breeding takes place throughout the year. Single lambs are born after a gestation of 210 days. Birth intervals are approximately 235 days. Lambs weigh about 1 kg at birth and stays with the mother for about six to eight months. Males do not participate in the rearing of the young, but both sexes respond to the distress call of the lamb.

Family life

Red forest duikers usually travel alone, in pairs or in small family groups, and groups of more than three individuals are rarely seen. Red duikers are territorial and usually live in pairs, in pairs with one dependent young, or alone. The only times they form groups larger than three are at fountains, salt licks or fruit drops that occur at territorial boundaries. Males are particularly territorial and will fight each other when they come into contact. Red forest duikers make many scent marks using a substance secreted by jaw glands near the eyes. They rub their faces on grass, branches, bark or other surfaces to mark their territorial boundaries or even their mate or lamb.


Friends and Foes

Throughout its habitat, the red forest duiker is heavily targeted for bushmeat by communities who use bushmeat supplements their diet and income. The red forest duiker eats mainly plants. They eat recently fallen fruits and leaves dropped by flocks of birds or groups of monkeys passing through.

Due to its slender physique, the red forest duiker is an easy prey for large raptors such as eagles and terrestrial animals such as leopard and pythons. They can host external parasites and several nematode species internally.

The red forest duiker’s impact on the environment include acting as seed dispersers for some plants. They maintain a mutualistic relationship with some plants; the plants provide a nutritious and abundant food source for the duikers and at the same time benefit from the fact that the duikers spread their seeds widely.

Overexploitation of red forest duiker affects their population numbers and the organisms that depend on them for survival. For example, plants that depend on red forest duikers for seed dispersal may lose their primary method of reproduction, and other organisms that depend on those particular plants may lose their resources as a primary food source as well.

Smart Strategies

Due to the challenges involved in observing red forest duiker in their deep forest environment, these duikers have not been studied extensively in the wild. The main defence mechanism of red forest duikers is to hide from predators. They are known for their extreme shyness, freezing at the slightest sign of danger and plunging into the nearest bush.

Poorer world without me

This species serves as a flagship for forest ecosystems and is an important seed disperser for plants. They maintain a mutualistic relationship with some plants; the plants provide a nutritious and abundant food source for the duikers and at the same time benefit from the fact that the duikers spread their seeds widely. It has been observed that on the southern slopes of the Soutpansberg, where they serve as an essential source of prey for leopards (Panthera pardus). The species is prey to many small predators.

People & I

Body parts of this species are used by humans, such as the horns are used for muthi and the skin for traditional costumes. The red forest duiker is a very secretive species and hides away from people. Females are very aggressive after birth and may attack if you approach the newborn. Farmers kill them when they invade their crops, even though they may not eat any plants.

Conservation status and what the future holds

The greatest threat to the red forest duiker is the destruction of its natural habitat, either for agriculture or for housing. Red duikers have disappeared from much of their former range, mainly due to the loss of suitable habitat due to human settlement, agriculture and hunting. However, it is locally common in parts of its former range. The most recent regional IUCN Red List rating is Near Threatened (NT); globally it is listed as Least Concern (LC) but declining. Much of their former habitat in Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces has been altered. In the inland tropical forests, a large part of the natural forests has been cleared for plantations and in the drier areas for agriculture, especially sugar cane. Afforestation with exotic tree plantations and cultivation of crops continues to reduce the habitat of this species. Like all forest dwellers red forest duiker suffer fragmentation of populations due to habitat destruction. They are heavily poached with dogs and by snaring.


Harvey’s duiker (Cephalophus harveyi) is sometimes considered a subspecies of the red duiker but can be distinguished by its darker legs and black face. The Aders duiker (Cephalophus adersi) has a similar general colour, but with a distinctive white stripe across the rump and thighs and distinctive white freckles on the lower legs.

Scientific Name: Cephalophus natalensis
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Bovidae
Genus: Cephalophus
Species: C. natalensis A. Smith, 1834

Author: Zinhle Philadelphia Mdluli

References and further reading

  • Apps, P. 2012. Smithers’ mammals of southern Africa: a field guide. Penguin Random House, South Africa.
  • Apps, P. 2014. Wild Ways. Field companion to the behaviour of southern African mammals. Penguin Random House, South Africa.
  • Bowland, A.E. 1990. The ecology and conservation of the blue duiker and red duiker in Natal. PhD Thesis. Department of Zoology and Entomology, University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
  • Don E. Wilson & Russell A. Mittermeier, 2011, Bovidae, Handbook of the Mammals of the World – Volume 2 Hoofed Mammals, Barcelona
  • Ehlers-Smith, Y. & Williams, S. 2016. Cephalophus natalensis. Red List of South African Species. South African National Biodiversity Institute. Downloaded on 27 March 2024.
  • IUCN SSC Antelope Specialist Group. 2016. Cephalophus natalensis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016.
  • Kingdon, J. 1982. East African mammals. An atlas of evolution in Africa. Academic Press, London and New York.
  • Monadjem, A. 1998. The mammals of Swaziland. The Conservation Trust of Swaziland and Big Games Parks, Swaziland.
  • Power, R.J .2002. Prey selection of leopards in the Soutpansberg, Limpopo Province, and the utilisation options for this population. Mammal Research Institute, University of Pretoria.
  • Skinner J.D. & Chimimba C.T. 2005. The mammals of the southern African subregion. Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom.
Scroll to top