Namibian’s think so highly of the gemsbok, or Oryx gazella that their national coat of arms depicts two of these magnificent animals on either side of a shield covered with the national flag – representing courage, elegance and pride. If you see these antelope in their desert surroundings, you will understand why they hold such a prominent place in the hearts of all Namibians.
We come across them often in our travels in Namibia and Botswana and they never fail to give us a thrill when we see them. Their coats vary in colour from light grey to light brown, with patches of white, highlighted by dramatic black lines on their backs, legs and faces. These striking markings are offset by long straight horns that are sported by both males and females – the female’s horns being slightly thinner and longer.
Gemsbok can survive in harsh semi-desert conditions and dry savannah areas as they have adapted to tolerate heat better than other antelopes. Able to withstand temperatures in excess of 45 degrees C they use rapid breathing to cool the blood that passes through their noses. This cooler blood is transported to their brains and their body temperature is brought down a few degrees.
They are able to survive for long periods without water. Like most antelopes, they are mainly grazers, but they also eat tsamma melons, bulbs and tubers, which add moisture and fibre to their diet. During the day gemsbok mostly try and find a shady tree to stand under, as they prefer feeding early in the morning, evening and sometimes during the night, when temperatures are cooler.
Lions, hyenas and dogs are their main predators, apart from humans, who hunt them for trophies or meat. We came across a lion kill in the Central Kalahari last year, where a pride of lions had brought down a gemsbok.
The lions guarded their kill very jealously because a large number of black-backed jackals were keen to get any pickings that they could.
Gemsbok give birth to a single calf, arriving at any time during the year, after a nine month gestation period. The calf is usually hidden for the first few weeks of its life before it joins the rest of the herd. The baby’s horns grow very quickly, giving rise to the myth that gemsbok are born with horns, which obviously isn’t true. As can be seen from the photo below, the baby is brown with very few markings.
Wherever we see them – in the sand dunes of Sossusvlei, the savannah grasslands of Botswana or the arid rocky Etosha game reserve, they remain one of our absolute favourite animals and we always admire their grace and beauty.