Monday, April 23, 2012

Lust to dust

Shall two knights never tilt for me
And let their blood be spilt for me?
Where are the simple joys of maidenhood?

                                      The simple joys of maidenhood,


OK, I admit that I’m too old to indulge in these girlish yearnings but, somewhere out there, a fetching young antelope must be clapping her hooves together in maidenly glee.

Well to answer that question I have to go back a month or so (oh, how I procrastinate blog posts).

I was tootling along to my study site, oblivious to the world (you know how it is driving to work), when suddenly I was dragged from my reverie by a horrible stench. Slamming on the brakes and reversing back, I discovered a mob of 40 white-backed vultures milling about on the roadside. Jostled together in a dense clump, the massive birds strutted back and forth, making snake-necked lunges at one another and uttering threatening hiss-growls (the cries of excited orcs).

At first I couldn’t see what they were all quarrelling over.
Then I glimpsed a massive grey rump.
Oh no! Another poached rhino!
(Now that’s a blog post I’m SERIOUSLY procrastinating about).
But then one of the birds leapt into the air – to hurtle with outstretched talons at its rival - and I got a proper glimpse of the carcass.
No, not a rhino.
The huge grey body was, in fact, the last mortal remains of an eland bull. Embarrassingly, the carcass looked at least two days old. Had I really sailed on past twice already?

White-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) squabbling over their breakfast of eland venison.

The dearly departed eland. I didn’t snap this photo until the following day, after the vultures had made tracks (literally and metaphorically); if they see a person at a carcass they won’t come back (legacy of centuries of poisoning).

Now elands go to a lot of trouble to prevent this sort of thing from happening.

Being thick-skinned (15 mm/0.6” on the neck)
and well-armed (those horns are 65cm/26” long)
didn’t save this Romeo from death by stabbing
(or should that be Mercutio?).
Tipping the scales at around 600 kg (1320 lbs), they’re too big to feature on the wish-lists of Africa’s many carnivores; in fact, as the world’s largest antelope, they flee from no one but man. So how did this one go astray?

If you hold your nose (figuratively) and take a closer look, you’ll detect the cause of death. Yep, a stab wound to the throat (he’s got another – presumably non-fatal - to his shoulder; enlarged, in the first photo, by peckish vultures).
This lad died for love.

Unlike most male antelopes, who bicker over their real estate holdings, elands are a romantic lot. They fight only for the attentions of a lady love. Although they swagger about in massive, mixed-sex herds (sometimes 500 beasts or more), the bulls maintain a stringent pecking order, and only the biggest and best chats up the girls. I’ve written before about the devious ways they figure out who trumps whom (without having to go head to head); heck, they don’t even have to lay eyes on one another!

But when two adversaries are perfectly matched, well, what can you do?
Maybe they’d had a bit much to drink, or some young buck had been getting up their noses, but whatever the reason, our very ex-eland and his nemesis came to blows.

Now fights between eland bulls are a rarity. This may be because - when things start heating up - elands resort to flaunting their hairdos. Like rockers slicking on the Brylcream or punks gelling up their mohawks, rival eland bulls smear their woolly quiffs with their own pungent cologne. Peeing ostentatiously, an agitated bull will then step backward and press the locks on his forehead and nose into the dampened earth. Rubbing gets so spirited, he’ll often pivot round and round in a circle, lifting his hind quarters right up off the ground. To complete the effect, he’ll add some pretentious headgear (a cool eland is an accessorized eland), violently thrashing with his horns at aromatic shrubs or weeds until he prizes out a pungent headdress of tattered leaves. Maybe a crown of thorns, or a beehive of grass, will give him that competitive edge.

An eland bull (Tragelaphus oryx) in slightly better health; note the luxuriant quiff. Like bull elephants, male elands go through periods of musth (called ukali) when their machismo (and testosterone levels) soar. Photo by Carol Foil.

But if a bull’s coiffure fails to intimidate his rival, it’s all out war. Clashes are brief and violent. The prize-fighters charge one another from 1 or 2 m/yards, ramming skulls and entangling horns. Using their massive neck muscles, they push and wrestle, striving viciously to lift and overbalance their opponent.
Now before some innocent reader comments, ‘Oh how exciting, seeing elands fight’, let me come clean. I haven’t. This is all hearsay. But don’t imagine it’s for want of trying. The problem is, elands are ridiculously shy of humans; they turn tail and flee at a distance of 300-500 m/yards.
Of course we humans only have ourselves to blame. Transform an animal into a deity and what can you expect?
You see elands feature big in San bushman mythology. San lads must skewer an eland to attain manhood, young girls are ushered into womanhood with an eland mating dance, and eland fat is both the drug of choice for shamanic trances and the favoured currency for procuring a bride. Now, this is all very flattering for your average eland, but not at all conducive to harmonious eland/human relations.

This bull’s from East Africa (southern African elands outgrow their stripes). He can go indefinitely without knocking back a drink, letting his temperature soar 7C (13F) on hot days, to save 5 litres/1.3 gallons of sweat (according to the best calculations of scientists). Photo by Carol Foil.

What’s worse, elands taste yummy. Even die-hard pastoralists - such as the Masai - who eschew dining on game, happily feast on eland. The beef-like qualities of this species didn’t escape European notice either. The 19thC English anatomist Sir Richard Owen (who coined the name dinosaur) was so delighted with eland steak he wanted the species introduced to the UK. In a letter to the Times in the 1860s he wrote, “...we might one day see troops of elands gracefully galloping over our green swards’’.

But attempts to domesticate elands (such as that at the Askania Nova reserve in the Ukraine) have met with limited success, not least because the beasts happily hurdle 3 m (10 ft) fences from a standing start. And despite their ox-like appearance, elands steadfastly refuse to hybridize with cattle (although crosses with their closest rellies - kudus, bushbucks, nyalas - have yielded a few perplexed calves).

Ahh, no wonder eland maidens are so smitten by their handsome knights.

Lady elands lack the males’ quadruple chin and bouffant hairdo. They also sport longer, thinner horns; perfect for lion-skewering. Mums team up to defend their sprogs from heartless felines.
 Photo by Lip Kee.


  1. I am in mega mainlymongoose need. Miss the mongoosiness.

    Just, you know, in case you're wondering? You Are Missed!

    No pressure. =) xo

  2. Biobabbler,
    It's touching to be missed. Thank you. I will try to get my act together and resume mongoosiness soon. My sister says I must write another post because the title on this one triggers the anti-pornography software on her work computer!


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