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Top 6 Amazing Facts About the Massive Eland Antelope

Jana worked in animal welfare with abused and unwanted pets. She loves sharing her hands-on experience regarding domestic and wild critters.


1. World's Biggest Antelope

The eland looks like a blend between a deer and an ox. The rugged herbivore, found in southern and eastern Africa, is truly huge. Females can weigh a hefty 600 kilograms, but bulls sometimes break the scales at a ton and stand around 1.8 meters at the shoulder. The common eland is the continent's second largest antelope and the honour of the biggest in Africa — and the world — goes to the giant eland.

2. They can be Domesticated

Humans exploit the eland as a food source. The animal's size delivers in quantity and for this reason, herds of eland are kept to harvest large amounts of leather, meat and milk. In some places, they outnumber cattle herds because they are naturally more suited to the harshness of the African land. Countries that have domesticated the eland for agricultural, zoo or exotic pet purposes include South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya and even Russia.

Unusual Farm Animal

An eland is not a sight one would normally associate with a farm, but their size and toughness make them a better choice than cattle.

An eland is not a sight one would normally associate with a farm, but their size and toughness make them a better choice than cattle.

3. Bulls Click Their Knees

One would think the biggest bulls in the antelope world would produce the most spectacular horn fights the animal kingdom had ever seen. Instead, eland males click their knees to intimidate a rival. This may sounds like a weird strategy, but it's actually brilliant. The animals don't click on purpose. They have no control over it. This is nature's way to signal accurate information between males before they decide to battle for mating rights.

The click is produced by a tendon slipping over the knee as the eland takes a step. The sound carries for hundreds of meters and tells rivals the health and size of the bull. There's no faking the signal. If a male is smaller, old or sick, other bulls will pick up on this and choose to oust the weaker animal if there are females to be won. A prime male's click will sound low and deep — and these are the bulls others try to avoid. This is nature's second strategy to pass on the best genes. Even prime bulls can die of scuffles. When other males avoid a strong bull, he lives longer and sire more offspring.

4. Sacred Blood

The eland was once a sacred animal to the San people of southern Africa. It was central to their spiritual beliefs and featured in rock art and ceremonies. The San believed that the eland was a shamanistic powerhouse, capable of giving supernatural power to a place (when killed and left at the desired location). This same potency was sought from the animal's blood and fat, which were mixed with paint pigments. The eland's sacred power was believed to be stored away in the resulting rock art. Rock shelters decorated with eland images and other art created with the animal's blood, became sacred places used for journeys into the spirit realm.

A Holy Animal

San Rock art, Ukalamba Drakensberge, South Africa, showing an eland.

San Rock art, Ukalamba Drakensberge, South Africa, showing an eland.

5. The Hybrid Calf

An interesting case about inter-species breeding involved the birth of a male calf. His mother was a kudu, which is the biggest antelope after the eland. His father was a giant eland. When tested, the animal proved to be sterile. Even though he had semen, it contained no sperm but interestingly enough, as an adult the animal displayed definite male behaviour and carried a strong masculine scent.

A genetic study revealed that certain genes looked completely different from both of his parents while the rest stayed identical to their genomes. He also had a good blend of their physical features. The most noteworthy were the ears; they were pointed like an eland's but had the broadness of kudu ears. His tail was also not as long as his father's and it also had the added tip tuft carried by kudu.

6. The Oakland Zoo Mystery

When an eland cow named Etana dropped a calf in 2010, it created a stir where she lived at the Oakland Zoo. The female calf, called Bali, wasn't a hybrid or born with two heads. She was bouncing, healthy baby, just perfect and cute. The problem was this; her mother lived exclusively with a female herd and should not even have been pregnant.

Etana had been living for months in an exhibition enclosure. The theme was “African Veldt” and other antelope species roamed with her. Some people immediately thought one of the males was responsible but zookeepers already knew the calf wasn't mixed. Somewhere, she had a sire that was nothing except an eland.

A few strange individuals went as far as suggesting a spontaneous pregnancy, with zero male involvement. The answer, when it came, was embarrassingly simple. Just like humans, an eland mother carries her baby for nine months. When the months were backtracked, it was discovered that she still lived at her previous home, the San Diego Zoo. Yes, there was a male eland, and he's probably the proud father of Bali.

© 2018 Jana Louise Smit

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