Oryx gazella (common name Gemsbok) is a large antelope distributed in southwestern Africa, whose range has been considerably diminished (a) in the country of South Africa due to human overpopulation, habitat destruction and overhunting; and in (b) southern Angola from destabilizing warfare which occurred in the latter part of the twentieth century when Russia and Cuba sent in large numbers of troops in an attempt to destabilise the region.
This species is well adapted to the harsh arid and semi-arid environments of the region, with morphological dentition features enabling both grazing and browsing, and remarkable thermo-regulatory physiology that prevents dehydration in these environments. The total population of O. gazella is estimated at approximately 370,000 individuals.
Distribution and subspecies
Native distribution includes the majority of Namibia and Botswana, along with vestigial populations in southwest Angola and extreme northwestern South Africa. The range was much more extensive in western South Africa and southern Angola even one century ago. The human population explosion in South Africa, with attendant habitat destruction, overhunting and habitat fragmentation has decimated most of the native population in that country. In Angola, more recent warfare surrounding the Russian financed Cuban mercenaries, with attendant neglect of wildlife conservation in the latter part of the twentieth century has created considerable species decline.
The majority of the native range is populated by O. gazella gazella, the Kalahari gemsbok; however, the Angolan population is generally considered to be the subspecies O. gazella blainei, the Angolan gemsbok.
There are non trivial introduced populations of O. gazella in western Zimbabwe (Wilson & Reeder. 1993) and in the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico in the USA.
Oryx gazella is a sizable bovid exhibiting a thick, muscular neck, overlain by dense, inelastic skin. O. gazella is, in fact, the most massive species within the genus Oryx. This antelope stands 1.15 to 1.25 meters high at the shoulder, and presents a tail to nose tip body length of 1.80 and 1.95 meters, with males being slightly larger than females. The female body mass ranges from about 178 to 225 kilograms, while the male body mass is from approximately 180 and 240 kilograms.
Gemsboks have the ability to increase their internal body temperature as high as 45 degrees Celsius, as a mechanism to cope with high environmental temperatures and as a means of coping with evaporative water loss in its arid habitats. Tissues in its large nose present a means of cooling this large animal, by exposing a large area of veined tissue to the surrounding air.
The dentition of O. gazella is well adapted to cropping the short tough desert grasses, with a wide row of incisors and high crowned molars. (Archer & Sanson. 2002)
Preferred habitat for this antelope is semi-arid and arid desert, bushveldt and grassland, including harsh environments of the Kalahari and Namib Deserts. (World Wildlife Fund & Hogan. 2012) O. gazella may be found on stony plains, sand dunes, rocky slopes and alkaline flats. It may travel considerable distances to drink from springs and visit natural salt deposits or salt licks. The typical altitude range of this species is from approximately 800 to 1300 meters above sea level.
This herbivore chiefly consumes its food by grazing, but during the dry season their palette is broadened to include a greater fraction of browse vegetation such as acacia pods. Adapting to arid environments has involved the ability to consume water rich foods such as bulbs, roots, tubers and tsama melons. (Sponheimer et al. 2003) The subsurface varieties of these foods it acquires by skillful excavation. (SSC Antelope Specialist Group. 2008)
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Year-round
Global Range: Southwestern Angola (extirpated?), Botswana, Namibia, northern South Africa, and western Zimbabwe (Grubb, in Wilson and Reeder 2005). Introduced in the White Sands area of New Mexico (Reid and Patrick 1983).
Gemsbok are large bovids with very thick, muscular necks, covered in dense, inelastic skin. Oryx gazella is the largest of the Oryx species. Gemsbok measure 115 to 125 cm high at the shoulder, and have total body lengths between 180 and 195 cm. Females weigh from 180 to 225 kg, whereas males are slightly larger, weighing between 180 and 240 kg. The slightly curved, ringed horns range from 60 to 150 cm in length. The horns of females are often shorter and more slender than those of males.
Black markings on the face extend down from the base of the horns to above the muzzle, and sweep back in stripes over the eyes and cheeks. Black continues down the neck and around the underbody, forming bands around all four legs. A stripe also runs up the spine, starting at the tip of the tail and ending at a short thick mane of black. There are black markings on the front of all four legs. The lower portion of the legs, muzzle, and underbelly are all white, whereas the body and neck are a gray or tan color. In instances of high productivity grazing, fat deposits under the skin become noticeable.
Inidividuals in northern populations have characteristic black tufts on the ears and are generally darker in color with thinner black markings than are individuals from southern populations.
Gemsbok are able to increase their body temperature to 45 degrees from 35.7 degrees C in order to delay evaporative cooling.
Range mass: 180 to 240 kg.
Range length: 180 to 195 cm.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; heterothermic ; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: male larger
Zambezian Halophytics Habitat
The Makgadikgadi spiny agama (Agama hispida makarikarika) is endemic to the Makgadikgadi Pans complex within the Botswana element of the Zambezian halophytics ecoregion. This agama typically inhabits the edges of the pans but it is difficult to spot, since it buries itself in the sand during the heat of the day.
One of the largest saltpans in the world, the Makgadikgadi Pan complex in Botswana stretches out over 12,000 square kilometres. The ecoregion is classified within the Flooded Grasslands and Savanna biome. Surrounded by the semi-arid Kalahari savannas, the pans experience a harsh climate, hot with little rain, and are normally a vast, glaring expanse of salt-saturated clay. These pans are sustained by freshwater from the Nata River, and more infrequently, from input from the Okavango Alluvial Fan by way of the Boteti River. Saline- and drought-tolerant plant species generally line the pan perimeters, with grasslands further removed from the pans.
For most of the year the pans are depauperate in bird numbers, except for ostriches and species such as the Chestnut-banded sand-plover and Kittlitz’s plover (Charadrius pallidus, C. pecuarius). The sole hospitable area to birds during these times is the Nata Delta, which has a permanent water source and a small resident population of waterbirds including grebes (Podiceps spp.), cormorants (Phalacrocorax spp.), ducks and plovers (Charadrius spp.) with a few flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber, Phoeniconaias minor) and pelicans (Pelecanus spp.). The grasslands surrounding the pans support a moderate bird fauna with species such as ostriches, secretary birds (Sagittarius serpentarius), kori bustards (Ardeotis kori), korhaans (Eupodotis spp.), sandgrouse (Pterocles spp.) and francolin (Francolinus spp.) being common. The Hyphaene palms to the west of the pans are nesting sites for, among others, the greater kestrel (Falco rupicoloides) and the palm-nut vulture (Gypohierax angolensis). After good rains the pans are transformed into a vibrant paradise, attracting thousands of waterbirds, most of which come to breed on the pans. Wattled and southern crowned cranes (Grus carunculatus, Balearica regulorum), saddle-billed, marabou and open-billed storks (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis, Leptoptilos crumeniferus, Anastomus lamelligerus), African fish eagles (Haliaeeetus vocifer), black-necked grebes (Podiceps nigricollis), Caspian terns (Hydroprogne caspia), eastern white and pink-backed pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus, P. rufescens), geese and waders such as avocets (Recurvirostra avosetta), black-winged stilts (Himantopus himantopus), plovers, sandpipers and teals (Anas spp.) congregate around the pans. The most spectacular arrival are the greater and lesser flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber and Phoeniconaias minor) that flock to the pans in their thousands.
Most mammalian taxa within the ecoregion inhabit the grasslands surrounding the pans. These include Hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus), Gemsbok (Oryx gazella), Springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis), Steenbok (Raphicerus campestris), Greater kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros), Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardus), Burchells zebra (Equus burchelli), Blue wildebeest (Connocheatus taurinus), black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas), Brown hyaena (Hyaena brunnea), Spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta), Lion (Panthera leo), Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), Painted hunting dog (Lycaon pictus) and even African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) along the Boteti River. The Nxai Pan has a sizeable Springbok population and is one of the few places where Springbok and Impala cohabit. These two antelope are normally separated by habitat preference, but the Acacia savanna surrounding Nxai Pan provides the impala with a suitable habitat while the grass covered pan mimics the desert conditions preferred by Springbok.
- A. Campbell. 1990. The nature of Botswana: a guide to conservation and development. IUCN, Harare, Zimbabwe. ISBN: 2880329345
- C.MIchael Hogan & World Wildlife Fund. 2015. Zambezian halophytics. Encyclopedia of Earth. National Council for Science and Environment. Washington DC
Gemsbok are found at elevations from 900 to 1,200 meters, in wooded grasslands as well as wetter grasslands. They can survive in areas of low productivity. Gemsbok prefer stony plains with at least limited water access, but can subsist in areas of dunes, rocky mountainous areas, and arid habitats with little seasonal water. Gemsbok also frequent open areas more than areas with increased tree density.
Range elevation: 900 to 1200 m.
Habitat Regions: tropical ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: desert or dune ; savanna or grassland
Habitat and Ecology
Although they are predominantly grazers, they broaden their diets in the dry season to include a greater proportion of browse, ephemerals and Acacia pods. They drink water regularly when available, but can get by on water-storing melons, roots, bulbs, and tubers, for which it digs assiduously. Adaptations to living in a desert environment are summarized by Knight (in press).
Comments: Generally on arid plains.
Non-Migrant: No. All populations of this species make significant seasonal migrations.
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.
Although generally a grazer, O. gazella will revert to browsing during droughts or whenever grasses are not available. These animals will also dig up to a meter to find tubers and roots. These, supplemented with wild tsama melons and cucumbers, provide all the water needed to sustain gemsbok (approximately three liters per 100 kg daily).
The dentition is highly adapted to cutting coarse desert grasses short, with high crowned molars and a wide incisor row. Desert dwellers can eat dry grass, but prefer green grasses. Activity at dawn and dusk allow for the consumption of the condensation present on the grasses.
Plant Foods: leaves; roots and tubers; wood, bark, or stems; fruit
Primary Diet: herbivore (Folivore )
Gemsbok exploit areas that few other animals can inhabit; they tend not to interact with many other species. Also, because they are nomadic, they tend not to overgraze areas.
In regions of the North American Southwest where gemsbok (and other exotic species) have been introduced, overgrazing has occurred, leading to the degradation of the areas populated by these herds.
Ecosystem Impact: biodegradation
- Rhipicephalus, Agriostomum equidentatum, Cooperia, Longistrongylus meyer, Tenia hydatigena, Fasciola hepatica, Haemonchus contortus, Griostomum equidentatum, Paracooperia serrata, Impalaia nudicollis, Strongyloides, 13 nematode species (Nematodirus spathiger and Trichostrongylus rugatus most prominant), Bronchonema magna, Longistrongylus curvispiculum, Ostertagia ostertagi, Trichostrongylus deflexus, Trichostrongylus pietersei and Trichostrongy/us thomasi as well as intestinal helminths.
Top predators of African grasslands are threats to the gemsbok. These include lions, cheetahs, leopards, and spotted hyenas. Even hunting dogs will attack them. Humans occasionally hunt these animals. The primary response to predation is flight, despite impressive weaponry. The young are typically targeted, since attacking the adults involves a risk of puncture wounds. However, it is debatable whether or not fatal stab wounds have ever been inflicted upon a predator, or whether predators show any avoidance of gemsbok in general. Predation may account for the high mortality rate in young. In the northern part of their range, 80% of spotted hyena kills are gemsbok calves.
- spotted hyenas
- hunting dogs
Basically gregarious, with herds of up to dozens or hundreds; herds may be allfemale or all male; males sometimes are solitary and territorial (Nowak 1991).
Life History and Behavior
Communication is particularly evident through dominance displays and aggressive behaviors. However, more subtle communication is conveyed by scent glands in the hooves, as well as urine sampling (primarily used to determine fertility). The animals have excellent hearing and smell, accounting for the prominence of stripe displays and scent marking. Although not specifically reported for these animals, as mammals it is likely that they use some accoustic means of communication. Tactile communication is also likely to play a role in reproductive activities.
Communication Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
Other Communication Modes: scent marks
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
The average life span is approximately 18 years in the wild, and 20 in captivity.
Status: wild: 18 years.
Status: captivity: 22 years.
Status: captivity: 20.0 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Gemsbok are polygynous. The resident bull of the herd mates with receptive females. Solitary territorial males are known to attempt to herd mixed or nursery herds onto their territories, thereby securing exclusive mating access to the females.
Mating System: polygynous
There is not a specific breeding season for gemsbok, though young within a herd tend to be of similar ages, indicating a reproductive synchrony in females. Females become sexually mature at about 2 years of age, and can conceive almost immediately after an 8.5 month gestation. Gemsbok are classified as "hiders", meaning the young are not seen present with the mother, but are hidden in the general vicinity, with the mother returning to nurse the calf 2 to 3 times each day. The young weigh between 9 and 15 kg at birth. At birth, calves are entirely brown in color. They develop the characteristic markings at about 3.5 months. At this point, the young are weaned. The males disperse and females join the maternal herd about a month after weaning.
Breeding interval: Gemsbok tend to breed every 9 months, and usually with little time between giving birth and becoming pregnant again.
Breeding season: Breeding season is year round, pending water availability.
Range number of offspring: 1 to 2.
Average number of offspring: 1.
Average gestation period: 8.5 months.
Average weaning age: 3.5 months.
Average time to independence: 4.5 months.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 1.5 to 2 years.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 2 years.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 1.5 to 2 years.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 2 years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; year-round breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; post-partum estrous
Average birth mass: 12000 g.
Average gestation period: 270 days.
Average number of offspring: 1.
Like most ungulates, pregnant gemsbok isolate themselves from the herd before calving. The single neonate is kept concealed, usually within sight of the mother. This hiding behavior continues up to six weeks of age, ending with reconciliation with the herd.
Males are not reported to participate directly in parental care, so the feeding, sheltering, protection, and grooming of the young are all accomplished by the mother. As is the case with most bovids, the young are able to stand shortly after birth, and can move around with the mother as needed.
Parental Investment: precocial ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-independence (Protecting: Female); post-independence association with parents
Adult females give birth at approximately 9-month intervals; gestation period is about 8.5 months; litter size usually is 1 (see Nowak 1991).
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Oryx gazella
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Oryx gazella
Public Records: 3
Specimens with Barcodes: 4
Species With Barcodes: 1
The current total population of gemsbok is around 275,000 individuals. Though the numbers do not indicate a threatened population, large declines in several areas have resulted from livestock overgrazing, human encroachment on land, climate change, and habitat destruction. Other gemsbok populations have been declining due to over hunting.
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: NNA - Not Applicable
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G4 - Apparently Secure
Despite this favourable trend, in some areas such as south-western Botswana its distribution is increasingly restricted to protected areas, to the point where there are now two discrete concentration areas within this region, in Central Kgalagadi-Khutse Game Reserves and within and to the north and east of Gemsbok National Park. Outside these protected areas, it occurs mainly in areas of the Kalahari without cattle (East 1999).
Its ability to meet its survival needs within a relatively small area of semi-arid or arid savanna, even during severe droughts, enable it to occupy much smaller mean annual ranges than migratory species such as blue wildebeest and red hartebeest. The gemsbok’s independence of surface water and non-migratory behaviour have enabled it to largely escape the adverse effects of veterinary cordon fencing (East 1999).
Comments: Some populations have been extirpated by hunters.
The Gemsbok is of major economic value to the wildlife industry in southern Africa. It is a key trophy species on game farms and an important component of game-capture activities. In South Africa it is in great demand among farmers because of its trophy value. It has been introduced widely to areas outside its natural range, e.g., Gemsbok numbers have increased dramatically on bushveld farms in the north of the country, mainly due to introductions from Namibia. Kalahari Gemsbok National Park supports South Africa’s largest Gemsbok population.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
There are no negative economic impacts of this species on humans.
Gemsbok are hunted for their thick skin, which is used for shield covers by local African peoples. The horns are also used in making spears.
This species is a common game ranch species since both females and males have horns, making trophies cheaper to produce.
Positive Impacts: food ; body parts are source of valuable material
The gemsbok or gemsbuck (Oryx gazella) is a large antelope in the Oryx genus. It is native to the arid regions of Southern Africa, such as the Kalahari Desert. Some authorities formerly included the East African oryx as a subspecies. The current gemsbok population in Namibia is estimated at 373,000 individuals.
The name "gemsbok" in English is derived from Afrikaans gemsbok, which itself is derived from the Dutch name of the male chamois, gemsbok. Although some superficial similarities in appearance (especially in the facial pattern) are noticed, the chamois and the oryx are not closely related. The usual pronunciation in English is //.
Gemsbok are light brownish-grey to tan in colour, with lighter patches toward the bottom rear of the rump. Their tails are long and black in colour. A blackish stripe extends from the chin down the lower edge of the neck, through the juncture of the shoulder and leg along the lower flank of each side to the blackish section of the rear leg. They have muscular necks and shoulders, and their legs have white 'socks' with a black patch on the front of both the front legs, and both genders have long, straight horns. Comparably, the East African oryx lacks a dark patch at the base of the tail, has less black on the legs (none on the hindlegs), and less black on the lower flanks. One very rare condition is the "Golden Oryx", in which the Gemsboks black markings are muted and now appear golden.
Gemsbok are the largest species in the Oryx genus. They stand about 1.2 m (3.9 ft) at the shoulder. The body length can vary from 190 to 240 cm (75 to 94 in) and the tail measures 45 to 90 cm (18 to 35 in). Male gemsbok can weigh between 220 and 300 kg (490 and 660 lb), while females weigh 100–210 kg (220–460 lb).
Gemsbok are widely hunted for their spectacular horns that average 85 cm (33 in) in length. From a distance, the only outward difference between males and females is their horns, and many hunters mistake females for males each year. In males horns tend to be thicker with larger bases. Females have slightly longer, thinner horns.
Female gemsbok use their horns to defend themselves and their offspring from predators, while males primarily use their horns to defend their territories from other males.
Gemsbok are one of the few antelope species where female trophies are sometimes more desirable than male ones. A gemsbok horn can be fashioned into a natural trumpet and, according to some authorities, can be used as a shofar.
Gemsbok live in herds of about 10–40 animals, which consist of a dominant male, a few nondominant males, and females. They are mainly desert-dwelling and do not depend on drinking water to supply their physiological needs. They can reach running speeds of up to 60 km/h (37 mph).
Introduction to North America
In 1969, the New Mexico State Department of Game and Fish decided to introduce gemsbok to the Tularosa Basin in the United States. The introduction was a compromise between those who wanted to preserve nature and those who wanted to use it for profit and promotion. Ninety-three were released from 1969 to 1977, with the current population estimated to be around 3,000 specimens. They thrived because their natural predators, including the lion, are not present. Theoretically, North America's Gray wolf would have been the main predator to the introduced Gemsbok in the Tularosa Basin similar to the Arabian wolf which hunts Arabian oryx.
- IUCN SSC Antelope Specialist Group (2008). Oryx gazella. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved 13 November 2008.Database entry includes justification for why this species is listed as Least concern.
- Dictionary.com: "Gemsbok". Dictionary.reference.com. Retrieved on 2013-10-10.
- Oryx Gemsbok. Zoo la Boissière-du-Doré
- Oryx gemsbok – Fiche détaillée – Les mammifères. Tous vos animaux. Retrieved on 2013-10-10.
- Gemsbok videos, photos and facts – Oryx gazella. ARKive. Retrieved on 2013-10-10.
- Burnie D and Wilson DE (Eds.), Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide to the World's Wildlife. DK Adult (2005), ISBN 0789477645
- Matign System. bio.davidson.edu
- Hearing Shofar: Making a Gemsbok Shofar. Hearingshofar.blogspot.com (2010-01-01). Retrieved on 2013-10-10.
- CHAPTER SIX: A BRAVE NEW WORLD: WHITE SANDS AND THE CLOSE OF THE 20th CENTURY, 1970–1994. US National Park Service. Retrieved on 2013-10-10.
- Exotic Animal Management (African Oryx). US National Park Service. Retrieved on 2013-10-10.
Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Does not include O. beisa (Grubb, in Wilson and Reeder 2005).