Wildebeest, Topi, Hartebeest & More

Wildebeest (also known as gnus), hartebeest and topi (known as tsessebe in the south) are all members of the antelope family. They are given a separate page here because they are more similar to each other than to the other antelope featured on the large antelope page.

There are several subspecies (races) of wildebeest in various parts of Africa, including the Eastern and Western White-Bearded Wildebeests, the Blue Wildebeest and several others. I am not able to tell which animals pictured here belong to which race.

Most of the wildebeest pictured here were seen in the Masai Mara of Kenya. The Mara is the northern end of the great Serengeti plains of Tanzania. In July or August of each year, large herds of wildebeest and zebra move north into the Mara in search of fresh pastures. Along the way, they face a number of obstacles, including lions or other predators that stalk the herds and rivers that must be crossed despite the lurking crocodiles. While I was in the Mara (at the end of July and beginning of August 1998), the full migration had not yet reached the area (some say that El Niño rains kept the grass fresh further south). Nevertheless, we saw thousands of wildebeest. Most of the time they are just standing around grazing. Occasionally, however, a small group will start chasing each other in a circle and sometimes a few will just romp around for no apparent reason – they definitely appear to be playing.

We also saw some more serious moments. Wildebeests have an inbred fear of rivers. No doubt evolution has favored those that are wary of crocodiles. We watched as a large herd of wildebeest crossed the Sand River near the southern end of the Mara. Although the river contained no crocodiles, the wildebeest were not taking any chances. What had been a large amorphous herd suddenly formed into a rather orderly line. The line came over a ridge single file and started down a steep river bank. At this point, it was every beast for itself. Here, instinct took over and the wildebeest leaped as far as they could into the river – although there was no reason to do so – and moved through the water as quickly as possible. (The zebra, on the other hand, being a notch or two higher on the IQ scale , simply strolled across the river like the small stream that it was). While the wildebeest made it safely across the river, we did see several later on that had fallen victim to lions.

Wildebeest are often seen in the company of zebras. The two species are complementary grazers – wildebeest prefer the shorter, green grass left behind after zebras have trampled and cropped the taller grasses. In addition, zebras seem to be much more alert than wildebeest and often act as an early warning system when danger (real or perceived) is near. When zebras break into their donkey-like hee-hawing alarm call, wildebeest are quick to react.

Another member of the antelope family commonly seen in the Masai Mara is the topi, a large grazer with a colorful coat. Further south, in Botswana and Zimbabwe, I saw the topi's cousin, the tsessebe. Going further south still, one encounters other cousins of the topi: the blesbok and the bontebok, both found naturally only in South Africa.

While in Kenya, I also saw several different types of hartebeest. Two are pictured here: Jackson's hartebeest in the Lewa Down conservation area and a Coke's hartebeest (at least that's what I think it is – they are very difficult to tell apart) in the Masai Mara.