Latin Name: Oryx Gazella
Shoulder Height: 120cm
Mass: 210kg
Length of horns: 95cm
Sexual Maturity: 2 years
Gestation: 9 months
Number of young: 1 calf
Longevity: 19 years

The gemsbok is found throughout north-west South Africa, favouring arid deserts and areas of thin bush. Because of its remote and (to man) unusable habitat, its geographical distribution has not changed significantly in the past few hundred years. The gemsbok is a magnificent animal, with long, slightly backward-pointing horns and a proud bearing. The gemsbok are large animals, and thick necked. Their coat is a pale brown or grey, with a pure white face and belly. The face is also covered in places with dark brown hair, forming a distinct pattern. the same dark brown hair also occurs on the legs, flank, rump and back. Contrasted against the pale hair, the dark brown often appears black at a distance, making the Gemsbok seem even more impressive. The coat is excellent protection from heat, which is a major problem in desert areas. The white belly especially absorbs very little reflected heat from the ground. Gemsbok are almost exclusively grazers, but will also browse from bushes and eat herbs if necessary. Gemsbok are also adept at digging out succulent roots, and also tsama melons, which are an excellent source of water.

Like many animals in desert areas, gemsbok are very adept at surviving without water for years at a time by several means. The first is the fine network of blood vessels around the nose and mouth. Blood passing through these veins is cooled by air flowing in and out of the mouth as the gemsbok pants. The second is a very highly developed kidney, which allows it to get rid of waste with almost no loss of water. The kidney is so efficient that urine usually only constitutes a few drops at a time. Thirdly, the gemsbok is also able to let its body temperature rise by several degrees Celsius before it needs to waste water by sweating. However, if water is available, gemsbok will drink regularly. Lastly, the gemsbok is also able to moderate its breathing, further conserving water.

The gemsbok is very shy, and capable of great speeds when necessary. However, a cornered gemsbok will fight boldly, making great use of its vicious horns. A hunted gemsbok will often back into thick bush to protect its rear and fight for hours with its horns. They will also charge if necessary, and lions hunting gemsbok will not jump onto the gemsbok's back as it does with other animals for fear of being impaled, and will instead go for the neck, out of reach of the horns. Gemsbok form herds of ten to fifteen with one dominant male and a few other males and females. However, herds often split up during the dry season into twos and threes, in order to find food. Although they are territorial, the gemsbok is far more tolerant than other grazers; this could be due to the fact that one herd could have a territory of ten square kilometers at a time. However, males do follow a strict pecking order, and all males are subservient to the dominant bull. Disputes are settled by pushing and shoving, elevating to the clashing of horns. Usually the defeated animal will beat a hasty retreat before it is seriously injured. Males defecate to mark their territory in a different manner to that of other animals - they crouch in an ungainly manner to ensure that droppings form a heap, which will retain moisture and scent for longer.

Mating is the sole preserve of the dominant bull, and is initiated by the bull, who will smell the female's urine to determine whether she is in oestrus. He will then court her by tapping her hind legs with his forelegs. Births occur throughout the year, and it is not unusual for the female to move away from the herd to give birth to a reddish brown calf, which will show the distinctive eye stripe, but no other markings, and will be able to walk very shortly after birth. The calf will, with promptings from its mother, find a place to hide during the day until the mother returns to allow it to suckle. The pair may move vast distances between hiding places, until the two rejoin the herd between three and six weeks later.

Mammals - John Skinner and Penny Meakin, 1988, Struik Publishers
Land Mammals of Southern Africa - Reay H. N. Smithers, 1986, Macmillan Publishers
Mammals of Southern Africa - Richard Goss, 1990, Jonathan Ball and Ad. Donker Publishers
Wikipedia -

Gems"bok (?), n. [D.; akin to G. gemsbock the male or buck of the chamois; gemse chamois, goat of the Alps + bock buck.] Zool.

A South African antelope (Oryx Capensis), having long, sharp, nearly straight horns.


© Webster 1913.

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