Home of the waterbuck

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The waterbuck has one of the most celebrated rear ends in the safari world. It’s a constant
source of amusement as rangers tell their guests how the buck acquired the white ring on its
rump from sitting on a freshly painted toilet seat. Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique is
ideal waterbuck habitat, making it one of the best places in the world to see these animals.

“It is likely Gorongosa is home to the single largest population of the common waterbuck in Africa,” says Dr Marc Stalmans, director of scientific services at Gorongosa National Park. The waterbuck population has increased by 25–30% annually in recent years.

Waterbuck and cranes. Photo: Clive Dreyer.

An aerial game census at the end of 2018 surveyed 193 500ha of the park and counted over 100 000 herbivores. Of the impala, kudu, sable, wildebeest, nyala and other wildlife counted, the common waterbuck was by far the most populous, with 57 016 animals recorded.

A good place to find waterbuck is around Lake Urema. The sheer density and numbers of waterbuck around the lake made it nearly impossible to count them individually. The team had to use photographs taken from a helicopter, which were subsequently georeferenced using satellite imagery.

Lake Urema is a high rainfall area with fertile alluvial clay soils, which results in excellent forage.
“It is in the area of the Great African Rift, which historically supported high densities of wildlife in Gorongosa,” Stalmans explains.

There is no secret to the waterbuck’s success in Gorongosa. “The floodplain grasslands and woodland margins in Gorongosa are the ideal habitats for waterbuck,” he adds. Waterbuck are bulk grazers and feed on a number of grass species, inside and outside of the floodplain. These include jungle rice (Echinochloa colona), black soil bristle grass (Setaria incrassata), small buffalo grass (Panicum coloratum), Guinea grass (Panicum maximum), bushveld signal grass (Urochloa mosambicensis), couch grass (Cynodon dactylon), common finger grass (Digitaria eriantha), and Swaziland finger grass (Digitaria didactyla).

The waterbuck’s preference for open habitats helped it survive the Mozambican Civil War in relatively higher numbers. “It is a lot harder to approach game unseen or set up snares in open grasslands,” Stalmans says. During the war waterbuck populations decreased by 90%, however the small population that survived enabled the rapid recovery and expansion of the species.

It is erroneously believed that lions and other predators avoid hunting waterbuck because they have a pungent odour to them produced from oil glands in their skin. The oil helps with waterproofing the hair and has a musky smell that gives the antelope its nickname, the greasy kob. “Lions and wild dogs have been recorded taking down waterbuck in Gorongosa,” Stalmans says. “Again, the waterbuck’s preference for open floodplains makes it more difficult for lions to hunt them.”

Waterbuck from Gorongosa have been relocated to Maputo Special Reserve and Zinave National
Park, with further translocations in the pipeline. “It’s important to note that not only waterbuck thrive in the park, buffalo and other wildlife are doing very well too,” he adds. “The waterbuck just had a head start.”

The waterbuck’s grey and brown shaggy coat is what prompted Ernest Hemingway to call it the most “ruggedly handsome” antelope in Africa.

Written by Georgina Lockwood

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