The Blue Wildebeest, a grazing herd animal has achieved fame as the key player in the Serengeti’s ‘Great Migration’, which is routinely described as the greatest animal show on earth.
With its front-heavy profile, dark colouration and cow-like horns, the safari first-timer can be forgiven for confusing it with the much larger buffalo. However, the wildebeest is an antelope; belongs in the Alcelaphinae subfamily, with the likes of hartebeest, topi and blesbok.
- The blue wildebeest occurs in five distinct subspecies, each subtly different in size and colouration. The western white-bearded wildebeest (C. t. mearnsi) of the Serengeti has a white beard, for instance, while the beard of the larger common wildebeest (C. t. taurinus), found in southern Africa, is black.
- Around 80–90 percent of blue wildebeest calves are born within a synchronized two-to three-week birthing window, usually at the start of the rains when there is plenty of fresh growth to enable females to produce milk. The sheer numbers overwhelm predators, which can make little impact on the overall wildebeest population.
- Not all wildebeest migrate. Some form small resident herds, usually comprising up to ten females and their offspring, which remain in the same area year-round. The females in these herds tend to establish dominance hierarchies and drive away any outsiders who attempt to join.
- Blue wildebeest avoid competition with the plains zebra that often graze alongside them by eating different parts of the grass. While zebra prefer the longer grasses, using their tougher digestive systems and shearing front teeth to process this coarser diet, wildebeest prefer the shorter grasses down low, where their broader muzzle allows them to maximise their grazing efficiency.
- Some 50,000 blue wildebeest perished in Botswana’s Kalahari during the mid 1980s drought, when their migration routes were blocked by veterinary cordon fences.