The Gemsbok (Oryx gazella) is the common name given to the largest and most well known of the 3 species of Oryx. Due to their horns being so lethal, Gemsbok have also been called the ‘Sabre Antelope’. Its name is actually derived from the German word for a male chamois, although they are not related. Gemsbok are distributed around deserts, scrublands and brushlands in South Western Africa.
There are two types of Gemsbok, a northern and a southern variety. The only difference between them is that the northern variety have black fringes on their ears while the southern variety have longer horns and their ears are more rounded in shape. Southern gemsbok are more abundant than the northern gemsbok. Gemsbok have also been introduced in Mexico and the southwestern United States.
Gemsboks stand around 4 feet 7 inches at shoulder height and weigh between 230 – 250 kilograms (females weigh slightly less than males at around 200 – 210 kilograms). Gemsboks coats are a light brown/grey colour with lighter patches to the bottom rear of their rump, and sandy grey flanks. A dark stripe extends from their chin and travels down to the bottom of their neck, over their shoulder joints and leg along their lower flanks and on each side of their rear legs. All four legs are black on their top half, with white below the knees and black patches on the shins.
Gemsbok have a horse-like posture and gallop and have muscular necks and shoulders. They have a long tail with black flowing hair.
Both male and female gemsbok have long, sharp, pointed horns (female horns are longer and more slender). These horns can extend up to 33 inches in height. The tips of the horns are pointed and sharp and native Africans have used the tips for spear points. Gemsbok also have very distinctive tan, black and white facial markings which make them easily identifiable.
Gemsbok are able to survive in even the harshest conditions thanks to an intricate network of blood vessels called carotid rete, situated in the nose which cool down the blood supplied to the brain. This happens because of the rapid inflow and outflow of air created by the gemsboks panting and therefore protects the gemsbok from deadly temperatures. At the same time, however, the gemsboks body temperature is allowed to rise – eliminating the need to perspire (sweat), and therefore preserving water.
Gemsboks are desert dwelling animals that prefer deserts, scrubland and brushland. Southern gemsbok tend to inhabit open, arid areas, such as the Kalahari duneland and bush savanna while northern gemsbok inhabit open grasslands.
Gemsboks are herbivores and grazers and consume mainly tough dry grasses, supplemented with foliage. Gemsboks are dry-region roughage eaters, with a great capacity to digest fibre. Desert dwelling gemsbok do not rely on water to satisfy their thirst, instead they obtain moisture from tsama melons and by digging up tubers, roots and eating plant bulbs. Grassland gemsbok have plentiful water in their habitat that is readily available.
Gemsboks are gregarious and sociable animals, spending time on open plains. Gemsboks can be seen in herds of 10 or more individuals, however, when food is scarce, usually during the dry season, they break up into smaller groups.
After the rain season, gemsboks usually gather into larger herds of up to 300 individuals. Herds are usually led by a territorial male who marks his territory with piles of dung pellets to warn off male intruders. If intruders do come on to the territory duel conflicts usually occur involving horn clashing and body bashing. As calves in the herd grow, they test each other in what looks like games, but in reality are tests of strength. As the hierarchy becomes established, the need to fight is reduced. Bachelor herds are rare.
Gemsboks do not shy away from large animals of prey. When holding off predators such as lions, their horns are lowered parallel to the ground and they lunge at their rivals with great accuracy. They are swift runners and can outpace a horse or a pack of African Hunting Dogs.
Gemsboks do not have a specific breeding season. A single calf can be born at any time of the year after a gestation period of 9 months. Males reach sexual maturity at about 5 years of age whereas females start breeding as young as 2 years of age. The young remain hidden in the grass and are suckled by their mother for 3 – 6 weeks after which calves will join their mothers and the rest of the herd or a nursery herd.
The female Gemsbok comes into heat again shortly after giving birth. The horns of the calves grow extremely fast and when they emerge from concealment after birth their horns are very prominent. The life span of a gemsbok is 18 – 20 years.
Gemsbok Conservation Status
Gemsboks are classed as ‘Conservation Dependent’ by the IUCN. Gemsboks are prized for their meat and their horns by many hunters.