The greater kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) is a woodland antelope found throughout eastern and southern Africa. Despite occupying such widespread territory, they are sparsely populated in most areas, due to a declining habitat, deforestation and poaching. The greater kudu is one of two species commonly known as kudu, the other being the Lesser Kudu, Tragelaphus imberbis.
Greater kudus have a narrow body with long legs, and their coats can range from brown/bluish-grey to reddish-brown. They possess between 4–12 vertical white stripes along their torso. The head tends to be darker in colour than the rest of the body, and exhibits a small white chevron which runs between the eyes.
Male greater kudus tend to be much larger than the females, and vocalize much more, utilizing low grunts, clucks, humming, and gasping. The males also have large manes running along their throats, and large horns with two and a half twists, which, were they to be straightened, would reach an average length of 120 cm (47 in), with the record being 187.64 cm (73.87 in). They diverge slightly as they slant back from the head. The horns do not begin to grow until the male is between the age of 6–12 months, twisting once at around 2 years of age, and not reaching the full two and a half twists until they are 6 years old; occasionally they may even have 3 full turns.
This is one of the largest species of antelope. Males weigh 190–270 kg (420–600 lb), with a maximum of 315 kg (690 lb), and stand up to 160 cm (63 in) tall at the shoulder. The ears of the greater kudu are large and round. Females weigh 120–210 kg (260–460 lb) and stand as little as 100 cm (39 in) tall at the shoulder; they are hornless, without a beard or nose markings. The head-and-body length is 185–245 cm (6.07–8.04 ft), to which the tail may add a further 30–55 cm (12–22 in).
Formerly four subspecies have been described, but recently only one to three subspecies have been accepted based on colour, number of stripes and horn length:
- T. s. strepsiceros, southern parts of the range from southern Kenya to Namibia, Botswana and South Africa
- T. s. chora, northeastern Africa from northern Kenya through Ethiopia to eastern Sudan, western Somalia and Eritrea
- T. s. cottoni, Chad and western Sudan
This classification was supported by the genetic difference of one specimen of northern Kenya (T. s. chora) in comparison with several samples from the southern part of the range between Tanzania and Zimbabwe (T. s. strepsiceros). No specimen of the northwestern population, which may represent a third subspecies (T. s. cottoni) was tested within this study.
Range and ecology
The range of the greater kudu extends from the east in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Eritrea and Kenya into the south where they are found in Zambia, Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa. They have also been introduced in small numbers into New Mexico. Their habitat includes thick bushveld, rocky hillsides, dry riverbeds and anywhere with a constant supply of water. They will occasionally venture onto plains only if there is a large abundance of bushes, but normally avoid such open areas to avoid becoming an easy target for their predators. Their diet consists of leaves, grass, shoots and occasionally tubers, roots and fruit (they are especially fond of oranges and tangerines).
During the day, Greater kudus normally cease to be active and instead seek cover under woodland, especially during hot days. They feed and drink in the early morning and late afternoon, acquiring water from waterholes or roots and bulbs which have a high water content. Although they tend to stay in one area, the greater kudu may search over a large distance for water in times of drought, in southern Namibia where water is relatively scarce they have been known to travel extremely long distances in very short periods of time.
Predators of the greater kudu generally consist of lions, leopards and hunting dogs. Although cheetahs also prey on greater kudus, they are unable to bring down a mature male, so usually go for the more vulnerable females and offspring. When a herd is threatened by predators, an adult (usually female) will issue a bark to alert the rest of the herd. Despite being very nimble over rocky hillsides and mountains, the greater kudu is not fast enough (and nor does it have enough stamina) to escape its main predators over open terrain, so instead relies on leaping over shrubs and small trees to shake off pursuers.
Female greater kudus live in small herds of six to twenty individuals along with their calves, though males tend to be mainly solitary, they sometimes form bachelor herds that consist of 4 to 8 young males (sometimes with an older bull as well). Rarely will a herd reach a size of forty individuals, partly because of the selective nature of their diet which would make foraging for food difficult in large groups. A herd's area can encompass 800 to 1,500 acres (6.1 km2), and spend an average of 54% of the day foraging for food.
Fully mature males will often fight other males by interlocking their horns with the other until one of them admits defeat and gives in. In rare circumstances this can sometimes result in both males being unable to free themselves from the other's horns, usually resulting in the death of both animals. Females may sometimes ward off males by biting them, due to their lack of horns.
Greater kudus reach sexual maturity between 1–3 years of age. The mating season occurs at the end of the rainy season, which can fluctuate slightly according to the region and climate. Before mating, there is a courtship ritual which consists of the male standing in front of the female and often engaging in a neck wrestle. The male then trails the female while issuing a low pitched call until the female allows him to copulate with her. Gestation takes around 240 days (or eight months). Calving generally starts between February and March, when the grass tends to be at its highest.
Greater kudus tend to bear one calf, although occasionally there may be two. To begin with, the calf will wait for the mother to feed it, but later it will become more demanding in its search for milk, and after a few months even aggressive. For the first two weeks of a calf's life they hide where predators cannot find them. For four to five weeks after that they roam with the herd only during day. Males will become self-sufficient at 6 months old. Females become self-sufficient at around 1 to 2 years old. Greater kudus may live up to 20 years of age when kept in captivity.
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Greater kudus have both benefited and suffered from interaction with humans; they are a target for poachers. They also are very evasive, using tactics of running short distances and hiding instead of simply running away which other African antelope commonly do. Humans have also destroyed woodland cover which they use for their habitat. However, wells and irrigation set up by humans has also allowed the greater kudus to occupy territory which would have been too devoid of water for them previously.
The horns of greater kudus are commonly used to make Shofars, a Jewish ritual horn blown at Rosh Hashanah.