- CLASS: Mammalia (Mammals)
- ORDER: Artiodactyla
- FAMILY: Bovidae
- GENUS: Kobus
- SPECIES: megaceros
Nile what? Most people in this part of the world have never heard of a Nile lechwe (pronounced LETCH-way or LEECH-wee). Lechwe belong to a family of African antelope known as Reduncines. Nile lechwe are native to the floodplains of the Nile River Valley. Most of the wild population lives in southern Sudan, with the remaining 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.
When it comes to dressing to impress, Nile lechwe take the cake. Males and females are the same color when born, but as they mature, the males change color and get much bigger. This difference in color and size within the same species is called sexual dimorphism. Males change from the blond coloring they are born with into a dark, chocolate brown with a blazing white patch on their shoulders as adults. But it isn’t just the females that take notice. It seems the flashy coat of the adult males denotes their status.
With such dramatic markings, male Nile lechwe do not blend in with their background as well as the females do. But because of where Nile lechwe live, this is not a problem. On the open savanna, an adult male would be an easy lunch for a lion. Yet in the dense vegetation provided by the swamps of the Nile, even a dark, handsome male Nile lechwe is camouflaged. As expected, all Nile lechwe are excellent swimmers.
HABITAT AND DIET
Living in an ecosystem with seasonal flooding, Nile lechwe have adapted to become aquatic antelope. One of the most obvious physical adaptations to their watery environment is their long hooves. Compared to other antelope species that prefer dry land, Nile lechwe have long, slender hooves. These hooves help them walk or run through their swampy, muddy home. While these long hooves are helpful for moving through the water, on dry land Nile lechwe tend to look clumsy. Male Nile lechwe also go to the water to fight, often submerging their locked heads.
Nile lechwe dine on the grasses and other vegetation found in their marshy native habitat. At the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, they eat high-fiber, copper-fortified pellets, and Bermuda and Sudan hay.
Herd size for Nile lechwe can be from 50 to hundreds of individuals, depending on how much space is available. Both male and female Nile lechwe are social, with males often teaming up to chase other males away from the herd. Adult male Nile lechwe mark the shaggy “beard” running down their neck with urine. This declares their status to other males and females. It takes the male a lot of practice to mark himself in this unique way!
A single baby may be born from November to January. The mother hides her baby in a protected area away from the herd for its first two weeks. She defends her calf if other herd members come near. By five to six months of age, the youngster is weaned and the mother is ready for her next male suitor.
Antelope are not thought of as “talkative” animals. Yet Nile lechwe, like many other antelope species, produce vocalizations. Females often make a noise sounding like the combination of a frog's croak and a pig's snort. They also make a call directed just to their calf, and the calf has a special call they use to respond. Males produce a call somewhat like the female vocalization but with a bit more “snort” to it. This vocalization is often directed at other males during social interactions. Its purpose is not known.
AT THE ZOO
The San Diego Zoo acquired its first Nile lechwe in 1966, a pair of young adults. Today, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park has a herd of Nile lechwe in the East Africa field exhibit. View the herd from an Africa Tram, Caravan Safari, or Cart Safari tour.
The current number of Nile lechwe in the wild is unknown and the species is endangered. The last count of the wild population was in 1983. At that time the total number of individuals was between 30,000 and 40,000 animals. Since the 1980s, the people they share their habitat with have been in a state of turmoil. Cultural instability, the increasing use of firearms, and multiplying cattle encroaching have all harmed Nile lechwe. The most threatening is a hydroelectric dam built south of their native floodplains in Sudan. It will likely disturb the seasonal flooding Nile lechwe and many other species rely on.
Because of the political problems in Sudan, no field research has been done. 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 Nile lechwe back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.