With their long white tails, stiff mane, whiskery muzzles, and curved, forward facing horns the Black Wildebeest looks quite menacing and is easily recognisable. Bulls have a shoulder height of only 1.2m and weigh in at around 160kg, considerably smaller than their closely related cousins, the Blue Wildebeest.
An inhabitant of open grasslands and semi-desert plains, Black Wildebeest subsists on a diet of grass, low shrubs and succulents, and need to drink daily. They have a preference for highlands and mountain plateaus, and are quite resistant to the extreme cold experienced in such habitats, especially during winter.
Black Wildebeest are gregarious animals, coming together in herds of 6 to 60 made up mostly of cows and calves traversing the territories of bulls in their prime. Bulls unable to hold territories of their own join together in bachelor groups. During the hot summer they are mostly active from early evening to early morning, while they are active for most of the daylight hours in winter. As their open habitat usually offers very little in the form of shade, they spend the hottest hours of the day standing still and facing away from the sun. Black Wildebeest are extremely nervous, taking flight at high speed at the scantest sign of danger, and can be aggressive and unpredictable, especially when cornered, which is why you’ll seldom see them in captivity – as recently as 2013 a farmer and his son were killed when the family was attacked by two black wildebeest.
Cows give birth in the herd to single calves between November and January. The calves can keep up with the herd within minutes of being born. Most of the larger predators have been wiped out in the black wildebeest’s range and as such black-backed jackals preying on calves were the biggest predatory threat to them, though recently lion and cheetah have been reintroduced to some reserves where they occur and should re-establish a natural predator-prey balance. Their natural life expectancy is about 16 years.
The Black Wildebeest occurs naturally only in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. In times past the Black Wildebeest was a migrating species, moving seasonally between the moist highveld grasslands and dry Karoo in incredible numbers, but modern farming practices have made such large scale movements impossible and the species is now confined to fenced farms and reserves. Some of the best places to see them include Chelmsford Nature Reserve, Golden Gate Highlands National Park, Mountain Zebra National Park and Willem Pretorius Game Reserve. By the end of the 19th century indiscriminate hunting had almost driven the species to extinction, but since then concerted conservation efforts have ensured that numbers have been built up to an estimated 18,000 on private land and in state conservation areas, and the IUCN now considers their populations to be safe and increasing. That being said, hybridisation with the closely related Blue Wildebeest is an increasing threat to the genetic purity of the Black Wildebeest.