Saturday, November 13, 2010

Look before you leap

When I was fourteen I met the love of my life.

Alright, I admit it, he wasn't human.

He was a small Arab gelding. Dark chestnut and flaunting a blonde mane and tail, he danced along with all the grace and elegance of his breed.
And for me - during my fraught teenage years - he epitomised everything joyous and good.

Of course being highly strung (the horse not me), he also had his foibles. For example, he refused to set hoof in puddles (not an issue in the Arabian desert but endlessly problematic during Melbournian winters). But his most distressing eccentricity related to jumping.

Without fail, we'd come galloping boldly up to a hurdle, only to have him slither to an abrupt stop with his chest almost against the bar. He'd then carefully inspect the far side of the obstacle and, once he'd ascertained a lack of large, fanged beasts lying in wait, he'd rear up on his hind legs and leap the obstacle from a standstill. As you can imagine, this was miserably uncomfortable for me, and utterly heart-stopping to watch. Nevertheless it seemed to work, and the dire predictions of everyone who'd seen us in the jumping ring (that sooner or later he'd kill us both) never materialised; he remained my dearest companion for almost 25 years.

Why am I telling you this? Because since coming here, I've realised that my horse's idiosyncratic approach to show jumping wasn't that idiosyncratic at all.

Take yesterday for example. While out on our evening stroll, the dogs and I met a kudu. Now kudus are my all-time favourite antelope. They're regal and stately, and they stand 1.4 m (4 ft 8") at the shoulder. They remind me of those computer-enhanced images of lingerie models, where the elegant legs just go on and on. Clothed in soft fawn or dove grey, kudus are drizzled with trickles of white, to break up their outline and help them blend in. And their faces are simply gorgeous: huge ears, an irresistible bambi nose and big dark eyes.

The horns of the greater kudu (Tragelaphus scriptus) are the longest of any antelope, reaching 1.8 m (6 ft) in length. When making a getaway through the dense thickets in which they live, kudu bulls raise their chins like haughty aristocrats, so their horns lie harmlessly along their backs. Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

Yesterday, as we ambled along a track that follows a game fence, the dogs heard something in a thicket on the fence line. Trembling with eagerness, the pair dragged me forward. I couldn't see what was hiding there (kudus put their camouflaged coats to good use, freezing in the face of danger) until we were about 12 m (40 ft) away. Then a huge kudu bull leapt out. Much to my surprise he didn't gallop away from the fence, he just gave one massive leap (from a standing start) up and over the 2.3 m (7 ft 6") fence. There was a ricocheting boing as his forelegs rapped the top wire and the fence swayed precariously, but the knock didn't slow his flight and within seconds he was gone.
With my usual photographic ineptitude, I failed to capture the event but I did snap a dreary photo of the kudu-less fence, once all the excitement was over.

The fence the kudu leapt. Grubby husky included for scale.

Careening kudu. Renowned for their jumping ability, greater kudus can easily clear 2.5 m (8 ft). Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.
Thanks to this impressive disregard for fences, kudus are free to indulge in seasonal pilgrimages. I don't see hide nor hair of them in the wet season (because they're off roaming far and wide) but once food gets short, they all come trooping back, to hang out near the koppies and the river. Kudus dine almost exclusively on foliage and, because of their size, they need plenty of it; especially the males (who are 50% heftier). Late in the dry season, I often come across emaciated bulls tottering about, and many starve if the rains are late to arrive. A study in Kruger found that a six-year-old kudu bull (who's just attained adult size) has only a 50% chance of reaching his seventh birthday. In contrast, svelte lady kudus often live to fifteen.

Crown of thorns. Cryptic and stealthy, greater kudus are able to survive outside protected areas and are gradually infiltrating much of their former range (after rinderpest epidemics almost annihilated them early last century). Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

Fortunately, all the kudus I've met this year are looking OK (thanks to the heavy rain last April) so I don't have to feel guilty about chasing them over fences. But the prodigious leap I witnessed was by no means unique. I've also seen impala, bushbuck, duiker and eland leap over large obstacles from a stationary start. And, thinking about it, both my dogs and cats jump from a standstill. Maybe my darling horse was just behaving naturally??

When love is in the air (around May), kudu bulls slap on the neck muscles. Why? Because rival males lock horns and neck-wrestle to win the hoof of lady kudus.
 Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes (who clearly share my love of kudus).


  1. Magnificent photos of my favourite buck. I also had a pony when I first started riding who jumped the same way. He was only 14.2hh but carried me through many years in kids classes and then through my first year in adults as well. I was always amazed as his ability but it is not so easy to stay on top!! Diane

  2. Wow. Completely fascinating. When your horse was looking before it leaped, I was thinking that's a sound practice in rattlesnake country. =)

    Once a mule deer got into our garden (gate was left open), and my husband went to shoo it out, thinking it'd head out through the gate. Well, no, that'd mean heading toward the burly gentleman, apparently a terrifying thought. Instead, from standing, it leaped over our garden fence which is 6 feet tall. We were dumbstruck.

  3. Yeah, I've routinely seen mule deer take 6 to 7 foot fences that way up here...but of course since they are "common" here I'm SO enjoying these photos of the kudus (which, along w/eland and bongo, I recall seeing when I was a child at the Bronx Zoo...but even in a large "natural" exhibit, nowhere near what it must be like to encounter them in their home territory!!!!)

  4. Gorgeous photos, wonderful post. Perhaps one day I will make it back to Africa for another visit - it is a fantastic place!

  5. Great photos. Kudus are wonderful, but I like Nyalas even more. The bull Nyala is a truly magnificent creature with it's bright stripes, rich chocolate coat, and flaming yellow mane.

  6. I remember your descriptions of riding your horse would leave us weak with laughter!

  7. Lovely to have stumbled across your blog.... as wildlife field biologists ourselves, we REALLY appreciate all that you do! Mongoose are SUCH incredible creatures and we look forward to keeping up with your adventures here at Mainly Mongoose and checking out your previous posts :) Your pictures are breathtaking and we look forward to visiting/working in Africa someday soon!

    - Carrie and Ben

  8. Diane,
    I once attended an Arab Horse Performance Show and was immensely reassured to find that virtually ALL the competitors jumped in this way. Certainly not elegant, but maybe sensible (from the point of view of a cautious prey animal), provided you've got the ability to do it.

    Yes, it's amazing what these creatures can do. I suspect that the whole concept of a 'running start' is a manmade invention (or at best a primate trait). I wonder if small children have to be taught to use running jumps?

    Yes, I feel really privileged to be able to meet these critters when out for a stroll. But mule deer ARE pretty cute... (although, I admit, I've never actually seen one in the fur).

    Don't Bug Me,
    Nice to hear from you. Come now, life just isn't complete without regular pilgrimages to Africa!

    Ok, I admit that nyala are lovely, although I find them more reminiscent of cute soft toys than of stately antelope. I once came across two male nyalas having a tiff, and they were both fluffed out like feather dusters. They seemed about twice as large as usual because their bodies were almost entirely ringed by an amazing fringe of erect fur (both the luxuriant crest that runs along their backs and the long 'beard' along their tummies). It was breath-taking.(Of course, I failed to get a photo!)

    Great to hear from you. I suspect that it didn't take that much to leave us 'weak with laughter' back in those days. Still, I wouldn't want to be that age again; not for all the tea in China or, more accurately, all the chocolate in... Switzerland?? (argh, my ignorance knows no bounds!).

    Carrie and Ben,
    As wildlife biologists you can't afford NOT to visit Africa. All that megafauna, happily strutting its stuff by day; it can't be beat!

  9. These Kudu's are really stunning beautiful, indeed, true models - okay, together with the Giraffes, of course!
    Oh, I'm not surprised about your Darling friend. He is an Arab, not just a horse, ya know! Certainly, you both must have had a very strong connection to each other, and his behaviour makes him even more endearing!

    Thanks so much for this wonderful post again!!!!

  10. Kudus are also my favourite antelope. I think that is because I bottled reared a fawn, whose mother had been snared by poachers. She was an absolute delight and became quite affectionate and an would come running whenever I called her. We eventually gave her to someone with a small game park, where she could have more space and be able to roam in relative safety.

  11. Lil Earthwoman,
    I think Arab horses and kudus are probably on a par as far as flightiness goes. I suppose they are both prey animals designed for speed. The world's a nicer place thanks to the existence of both.

    Oh, how lovely to have your own friendly kudu. It's a bit like something from Walt Disney. I hope she went on to rear little fawns of her own.

  12. Hi

    May i have permission to use your "browsing kudu pic"as a reference in a painting Im doing.

  13. Hotta Blogga,
    Thanks for your enquiry. The photo you're interested in wasn't taken by me. It comes from Arno & Louise Meintjes' Flickr Photostream and is available for non-commercial use (under a Creative Commons License).
    It's probably wisest to check with them directly whether it's OK to use for a painting by leaving a comment at:


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