Namibia’s National Animal – The Oryx
Bold, elegant, and iconic
Also known as the gemsbok, the oryx is symbolic of Namibia’s arid landscapes and striking beauty. The antelope appears on the Namibian coat of arms and is the national animal of this arid African country.
It’s the largest of four species of oryx which include the Arabian oryx, scimitar oryx, and east African oryx.
The oryx is supremely adapted to its environment and found across the country. Whichever of Namibia’s national parks you choose to visit, you’re bound to come across the oryx.
They’re abundant and hold a cherished ‘of least concern’ status on the IUCN Red List, with the Namibian population numbering around 370 000.
The only major threats to the gemsbok are habitat loss and overgrazing by domestic animals.
They’re sought-after trophy animals due to their large horns and impressive hides, but their large numbers and strict controls over hunting in Namibia ensure that this has an insignificant impact on the population.
Adaptable to the Extreme
It’s hard to overlook an oryx when you see it in its natural habitat. It’s fawn coat blends in well with the dry grasslands it prefers, but striking black and white facial, belly, and leg markings along with a pair of large slightly curved horns are unmissable.
Like most animals, oryx prefer the easy life offered by abundant grazing and water, but they’re perfectly capable of thriving in less-than-ideal conditions. These incredible animals can tolerate extreme heat, sparse pickings, and extraordinarily little water.
One of the more perfectly desert-adapted large mammals, the Oryx is able to subsist in waterless landscapes where they extract every drop of moisture from the food they graze on and can go without water for months at a time if necessary. They will eat roots, bulbs, grass, wild melons, and cucumber, feeding late in the afternoon and at night, when condensation gathers on these plants.
When temperatures rise, oryx keep their brains cool with nasal panting while the rest of their body temperature soars in the heat. Drawing air in rapidly via the nose cools the air molecules. Capillaries in the nose then send this air-cooled blood to the brain.
Regardless of the temperature, they conserve precious moisture by never breaking a sweat. Those gorgeous black and white markings on their legs and bellies help keep their vital organs cool, while the facial mask draws attention to their horns in the hope of attracting a mate.
They have large flat hooves which makes traversing the hot sands a lot easier.
Although both male and female gemsbok have horns, the females’ headgear is usually thinner, longer, and slightly curved. The males’ horns are straight.
A lack of convincing camouflage doesn’t hamper the oryx in any way since few predators can survive the harsh environment where they feel most at home. Their imposing 1.2m tall physique, muscular shoulders and necks, and sharp, towering horns are significant deterrents to all but the hungriest lions.
Male gemsbok weigh as much as 240kg and can run at a speed of 60km per hour.
Gemsbok will attack when threatened and can easily inflict fatal injuries thanks to their large physique and pointed spear-like horns. Many a brazen wild dog or hyena have met their end attempting to take on an oryx, and skirmishes between males can end in disaster for the loser.
The Gemsbok Way of Life
Oryx aren’t particularly gregarious and usually gather in small herds to limit competition for food. These groups have a loose structure and usually consist of a dominant bull with a few females and their young.
Sometimes females will group up with non-territorial males. When the rains are good and food is plentiful, you may come across oryx herds with as many as 300 individuals.
The herds are reasonably tolerant of new arrivals and even males are accepted after an initial display of aggression from the resident males.
During times of plenty, they can congregate in herds numbering up to 300 individuals. Gemsbok are largely nomadic unless they come across an area with a reliable water supply.
They are non-seasonal breeders with a gestation period of nine months. Females usually leave the herd to give birth to one or two young, which they keep hidden for up to six weeks. During this time, the mother returns to the herd, visiting the calf one to three times daily to nurse it.
The females become productive at about 2.5 years of age and most gemsbok can live for up to 20 years in the wild.
The Role of the Oryx in the Ecosystem
Like all things in nature, oryx play a vital role in the ecosystem. Their free-ranging habits ensure the propagation of plants via their droppings. They help keep vegetation in check with their indiscriminate grazing habits which prevent one plant from thriving at the expense of another.
Where to See Oryx in Africa
Gemsbok only occur in Southern Africa, you can see them in Namibia, South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. They’re abundant, and you could come across them in the following places:
The sight of a magnificent oryx walking among the red dunes of the desert is the stuff of photographers’ dreams. In Namib-Naukluft national park, you’re most likely to encounter them near dry watercourses in this part of the world.
Etosha National Park
Etosha’s vast grasslands are ideal for gemsbok. You’ll see them everywhere in this park, but it’s best to look for them close to the sources of water favoured by most other game species.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park
The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park spans the border between South Africa and Botswana. The open expanses of this park make it easy to spot all kinds of game, including the striking oryx.
Central Kalahari Game Reserve
There is no permanent surface water in this park, and it’s covered with large tracts of semi-desert landscapes. This makes it perfect for hardy species like the oryx and springbok.
Head to Namibia to See Wild Oryx
Oryx are so abundant and versatile you’ll come across them wherever you go in Namibia. You may pass them while driving to your next destination or see them in one of the country’s many national parks along with many other iconic African animals.
If you’d like to find out more about Namibia’s amazing wildlife, browse our travel blog and click though to our travel guide for inspiration to fuel the safari of a lifetime in Namibia.
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