Africa’s Southern Sudan and southwestern Ethiopia


Swamps and floodplains of the Nile River Valley

Nile what?

Most people in this part of the world have never heard of a Nile lechwe (pronounced LETCH-way or LEECH-wee). Nile lechwe belong to a family of African antelope known as Reduncines. They are native to the floodplains of the Nile River Valley, with most of the wild population living in southern Sudan and the remaining residing in western Ethiopia.

The "Nile" part of their name tells you where they are from, but where in the world does the word lechwe come from? Lechwe is a Bantu word meaning antelope, a good name for the antelope calling the Nile River Valley home.

Amphibious antelope

Living in an ecosystem with seasonal flooding, Nile lechwe have adapted to become very aquatic antelope. One of the most obvious physical adaptations to their watery environment can be seen in their long hooves. Compared to other antelope species that prefer dry land, Nile lechwe have long, slender hooves that help them walk or run through their swampy, muddy home.

While these long hooves are very helpful for moving quickly through the water, on dry land Nile lechwe tend to look fairly clumsy. So just like basketball players, big feet help Nile lechwe move quickly in their “home court” but can make them appear awkward at other times. Male Nile lechwe also go to the water to fight, often submerging their locked heads.

The Nile lechwe was originally named Mrs. Gray’s waterbuck by Dr. J. E. Gray, a curator at the British Museum, in honor of his wife.
Nile lechwe are considered “royal” animals by the Shilluk people of Sudan and are an important part of many sacred traditions within the culture.
Both male and female Nile lechwe are very social, with males often teaming up to chase other males away from the herd.
Even though their large horns can be used as weapons, male Nile lechwe often use them as back scratchers, reaching parts of their back female lechwes can only wish to scratch.

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park has a herd of Nile lechwe in its African Plains field exhibit. The herd can be seen from an Africa Tram Safari or Caravan Safari.

The current number of Nile lechwe in the wild is unknown and the species is classified as endangered. The last count of the wild population was in 1983, at which time the total number of individuals was estimated to be between 30,000 and 40,000 animals. Since the 1980s, the people they share their habitat with have been in a state of turmoil. With cultural instability, the increasing use of firearms, and multiplying cattle encroaching on their native area, the outlook for the Nile lechwe is unstable.

Probably most threatening is a hydroelectric dam constructed south of their native floodplains in Sudan, which will likely disturb the seasonal flooding Nile lechwe and many other species rely on. Because of the political problems in Sudan, field research has not been attempted, and much of how Nile lechwe behave in the wild is unknown. Social stability is crucial for the people living in this beautiful country and for the creatures that inhabit it.

You can help us bring species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.