Affinities and status
Although the blesbok is a close relative of the bontebok (Damaliscus pygargus dorcas) and can interbreed with it, the offspring being known as the bontebles or baster blesbok, the two species do not share the same habitat in the wild. The blesbok is endemic to South Africa and is found in large numbers in all national parks with open grasslands, from the Highveld in Transvaal and the Free State, to as far south as the Eastern Cape. It is a plains species and dislikes wooded areas. It was first discovered in the 17th century, in numbers so numerous, herds reached from horizon to horizon.
Physically, rams and ewes are remarkably similar. Their mass can be as much as 85 kg. A characteristic of the blesbok is the prominent white blaze on the face and a horizontal brown strip which divides this blaze above the eyes. Body colour is brown with a lighter-coloured saddle on the back, and the rump an even lighter shade. The legs are brown with a white patch behind the top part of the front legs. Lower legs whitish. Both sexes carry horns, ringed almost to the tip. Female horns are slightly more slender. The neck and the top of the back of the blesbok is brown. Lower down on the flanks and buttocks, the coloring becomes darker. The belly, the inside of the buttocks and the area up to the base of the tail is white. Blesbok can be easily differentiated from other antelopes because they have a distinct white face and forehead. The blesbok differs from the bontebok by having less white on the coat and the blaze on the face, which is usually divided, the coat is also a lighter yellow than that of the bontebok. The length of their horns averages at around 38 cm. Male adult blesbok average around 70 kg; females average lower, at around 61 kg.
- Body length: 140–160 cm (4.6-5.3 ft)
- Shoulder height: 85–100 cm (2.8-3.3 ft)
- Tail length: 30–45 cm (12-18 in)
- Weight: 55–80 kg (121-176 lb)
Blesbok can be found in open veld or plains of South Africa. Their preferred habitat is open grassland with water. They often occupy relatively small territories of 2.5 to 6.0 acres in size. They were once one of the most abundant antelope species of the African plains, but have become scarce since 1893 due to relentless hunting for their skins and meat. The blesbok’s distribution is restricted to the Republic of South Africa. Its historic range includes the Eastern Cape, Free State, southern parts of the former Transvaal, marginally in KwaZulu-Natal along the upper reaches of the Tugela River and into Lesotho, west of the Maluti Mountains.
The blesbok is a seasonal breeder, with rutting from March to May. Births peak during November and December after a gestation period of about 240 days (8 months). Females give birth to a single calf per breeding season.
The blesbok was hunted nearly to extinction because of its large numbers, but having been protected since the late 19th century, it has proliferated and today it is sufficiently numerous not to be classed as endangered. In modern times, this is largely because of the commercial value of the blesbok to private land owners, and also because it is one of the few medium-sized antelope that can be contained by normal stock fencing. At the start of the 21st century, blesbok numbers are stable, estimated to be around 240,000. However, perhaps fortunately, 97% of them live outside reserves, and only 3% in national parks. They also are common in zoos, though in far smaller numbers.
Cheetahs, lions, leopards, wild dogs, hyenas, pythons, jackals and eagles can attack the young calves. Man also hunts blesbok for the skin, flesh, and trophy. Blesbok are shy and alert; they rely on speed and endurance to escape predators. They can maintain a speed of 70 km/h (43 mph) when chased, but, like other white-fronted damalisques, blesbok are not good jumpers.
Fossil remains of a prehistoric relative, Damaliscus niro, were found in deposits in Sterkfontein. With a weight of approximately 120 kg, it was heavier than the modern blesbok and it had slightly different horns. D. niro became extinct at the end of the Pleistocene 12 thousand years ago.