The Gentlemen of the Bush

Wildlife Spotlight | 17th June 2021

Ranger Sean Jones shares a fascinating encounter with the ‘Gentlemen of the Bush’.

Animals can often be quite entertaining in various ways, ranging from courtship behaviors that male Zebras display to win over females, to juvenile Impalas contesting strength in their bachelor group to see who can one day be the dominant individual, or even through a Blue Wildebeest galloping and kicking through the bush just because they ‘feel like it’ on the day. These behaviors are sometimes found to be peculiar by those that don’t understand them, and can often be quite violent towards other animals, depending on what is to be achieved; dominance, submission, or attraction. Male animals showing how strong they are in a fight can display dominance over other males, and attraction from females.

However, there are other more subtle ways in which certain animals seek to get attention. For example in birds; the Lilac Breasted Roller has quite a performance that it puts on for the females. Being called a ‘roller’ these birds fly up into the sky, and then with their bright colours displaying beautifully in the light, they engage in a maneuver in which they twist or ‘roll’ their bodies around to show off all these colours to the female in the hopes of attracting them. These remarkable birds easily catch the eye with their combination of blue and purple and can sometimes be seen perching on branches of trees on Shambala.

Another intriguing manner which some antelope, like the Nyala and Kudu, use to show off is known as Philo Erection. This incredible phenomenon involves the male of the species performing what looks like a fashion show to get the audience of the females. The term refers to the hairs on the body standing up. So with this performance, the male moves very slowly and tries to make himself look as large and handsome as possible, in order to deter any possible competition and to impress the already gathered audience of females. So with the spiraling horns on a large male Kudu giving it a majestic appearance and this timid way of competing and attracting attention it has become known that these animals are referred to as the “Gentlemen of the Bush”. It is thus very seldom to find these antelope engage in any real form of brutal contact.

However, on one afternoon safari on Shambala, my guests and I were in search of something out of the ordinary, and we were not disappointed. We set off on game drive toward the southern side of the reserve, and managed to find quite a bit of activity along a river. We saw a Zebra standing out amongst a group of Waterbuck on the river’s edge, trying to quench its thirst. But it was what happened next that had us achieve our goal of witnessing an odd occurrence.  Suddenly out of the tree line next to the river appeared a rather large animal. “Giraffe!” One of my guests exclaimed, and I was about to acknowledge the claim, but as I turned my head to where the rest were looking I realized it was a massive male Kudu slowly coming to join the drinking party at the river. It was so big that one can understand the confusion with a giraffe upon first glance. As it came out of the tree line there was a sudden commotion in the thickets and the Kudu raised its head to see. Astoundingly it was another kudu bull coming out of the trees, at quite the speed, straight at the one we had just seen.

To our disbelief these male Kudus had engaged in combat over territory. With the river running through it and plenty of resources in the area, this was a territory to be hotly contested for. With no more subtleties, the “gentle” behavior was now null and void as these two antelope were horn locked trying to get their opponent to submit. Testing strength, they were twisting and turning to bend the neck.  We were ‘awe’ struck, and so were the other animals as the Zebra and Waterbuck suddenly turned into spectators of this cagey affair. There were a lot of ‘woohs’ and ‘ahhs’ as we watched the animals move into circles to prevent the other from having better ground and leverage. After about 20 minutes of suspense, the antelope were still locked in but were now running short of stamina, and a final move was made. The larger of the two was taking an aggressive step to the side to best his opponent, and just as we thought it was going to end for the worst, the other male managed to slip his horns out from underneath and made a bolt for it.

Everyone took a breath, and we were all relieved that both animals managed to get out of the contest alive. What an incredible scene to have witnessed, as it is very seldom to see these ‘gentlemen’ entangled in such a ferocious encounter. We continued our drive passed the two males who were now moving deeper into the tree line as if nothing had even happened. There was now a considerable distance between the two of them, with one being very happy about the territory he had just won, settling for a drink at the river’s edge. This kind of situation reminds one that in nature, no matter how subtle your attempts, Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection still applies;  Survival of the Fittest.

Ranger Sean Jones
Shambala Private Game Reserve


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