Gemsbok / Southern Gemsbuck / Southern Oryx
Oryx gazella (Linnaeus, 1785)
Photo: Doug Lee
IUCN Conservation Status:
Gemsbok, Beisa oryx, Fringe-eared oryx = Lower Risk, conservation dependent (LR/cd);
Scimitar-horned oryx = Endangered (EN);
Arabian oryx = Critically endangered (CR).
“Unicorn” – the legend originated in Egypt from the appearance of
several individuals of the scimitar-horned oryx that have developed
only a single horn; this was not the remaining of the consequence of a
prior break-off of the other horn. Further more: sunset, red sand dunes
and gemsbok are the most majestic features catching most peoples mind
when hearing the phrase “Kalahari”. The name oryx originated from Greek
and refers to horns like pick-handles; were as the name “gems” is a
Dutch term used for the chamois antelope Rupicapra rupicapra of Europe,
which has little resemblance to the gemsbok.
The genus is presently
divided into four species and four subspecies of which only the gemsbok
or southern oryx occurs naturally in South Africa.
The species are:
• the gemsbok or southern oryx Oryx gazella gazella of southern Africa
• the Angolan gemsbok O.g. blainei of Angola
• the Beisa oryx O. beisa beisa of north-eastern Africa
• the fringe-eared oryx O.b. callotis of central East Africa
• the scimitar-horned oryx O. dammah of northern Africa
• the Arabian oryx, also known as white oryx, O. leucoryx of Arabia and Iraq
Although recognised by the Rowland Ward trophy register, discrepancy
exists still among taxonomists regarding the validity of the
sub-speciation of the Angolan Gemsbok. There is also a dispute on the
recognition of beisa as an species, rather than a subspecies. Genetic
research has not yet confirmed the issue.
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The gemsbok is a large
antelope with exceptionally long, almost straight horns which are
heavily grooved, elongated pointed ears, long tail with a thick brush
of long black hair, and a dark face-mask. The snout are totally covered
with white hair, this is in contrast to all other antelope having bare
snouts. Skin colour is a fawn-grey with a dark band on the the spine,
down the throat and along the lower flanks, and on the upper legs. The
front quarters are larger than the hind.
• Angolan gemsbok is slightly smaller than the gemsbok and with white ears.
• Beisa oryx is more slender build, shoulder height 115-122 cm, mass 150-204 kg.
• Arabian oryx is white toned across the entire body, with dark feet
and a face-mask, and is the smallest, shoulder height 80-90 cm, mass
• Scimitar-horned oryx is white toned, with a faint brown face-mask,
but has white legs and is reddish-brown around the neck and throat,
shoulder height 110-125 cm, mass 180-200 kg.
Comparison To Man
Horns are present in both sexes and are long, 38-42”, almost straight,
heavily grooved with smooth ends. The horns of the cow are longer, but
thinner, and usually narrower with a lesser tip-to-tip diameter, than
that of the bull. Best trophies are generally found with cows. Horn
buds are 2-3 cm long at 6 weeks age, and reach Rowland Ward trophy
status after 6.5 years with cows and after 8 years with bulls.
Sandy soil, short annual
sweet grasses (2-6cm), perennial broadleaved forbs, dwarf shrubs, low
density large shrubs, and an annual rainfall of 50-300 mm. These
conditions are mainly associated with dry, karroid scrubland,
semi-desert shrub-vegetation, semi-arid open savannah as found in the
Kalahari-sandveld, and arid grassland. Thicket and closed woodland are
used only for refuge. Frequent disturbance by humans tend to transform
gemsbok in becoming bush-dwellers. Moist drainage lines on especially
alluvial and clay soils, tall grasses and forests are totally avoided.
Gemsbok does not hesitate to roam steep, dry mountain slopes. They are
not dependent on surface drinking water. Gemsbok cope with intensified
heat of the day by rising its body temperature with 4° to 42°C. It is a
poor jumper, but a master in crawling underneath fences.
Feeding & Nutrition
Most activity takes place
in early morning, late afternoon and deep into the night. During hot
daylight hours they stand ruminating either in the sun or in shade. It
is a partly selective mixed feeder of both grass and browse, consuming
large quantities of roughage that are rich in fibre when surface
drinking water is available. Without drinking water they become highly
selective. The diet consists of 70-85% grass and broadleaved forbs and
25-30% browse from low growing shrubs. Succulents, tsamma-melons,
gemsbok-cucumbers and digged out bulbs and roots are important sources
of moisture in winter. Grasses taller than 30 cm and sourveld is
Territory & Home range
Gemsbok groups are nomadic and will cover great distances wondering at
random across large areas without following any fixed route. Thus can
home ranges not be defined, nor the sizes be calculated. They will roam
the entire area within the boundaries of any given farm or fenced
land-unit, therefore a minimum land-area size of 1 200 ha is
recommended for the keeping of gemsbok.
Adult bulls have large fixed territories of 420-890 ha (mean 760
ha), which are poorly demarcated. The boundaries tend to follow terrain
morphological structures such as drainage lines, hills and koppies,
dunes etc. Stranger solitary bulls rarely enter the territory and
bull-fights are unknown. The inhabitant sporadically leaves its
territory temporarily to join a passing mixed group that wonders across
several territories, only to return to its territory at a later stage.
At any given time of the year only 13% of the dominant bulls will be
found single and within their own territories.
Territorial bulls defecate in a specialized manner of heeling down on
the hind legs reducing the distance of fall of the dung. This behaviour
results in the pellets dropping in a small compact pile that retains
the odour for much longer than would it be spread out from a high fall,
as with the standing cows who do not heel. Before defecating the bull
scratches the soil with the front feet to translocate the secretions
from the inter-digital glands between the hoofs. Some times they
intentionally break branches and shrubs with the horns to demonstrate
their dominance over the area.
Gemsbok are predominantly semi-gregarious forming
• mixed groups of 5-40 individuals, which include several territorial
bulls as temporarily associates, adult non-lactating cows, and subadult
• family groups of 4-12 animals, which include adult cows and calves and sometimes accompanied by a territorial bull
• bachelor herds of 2-7 bulls of all ages
• solitary territorial bulls
Photo: Doug Lee
During dry periods the groups split into smaller groups of 4-12
individuals, but congregate again when conditions become more
favourable. Groups are unstable with poor family bonding, allowing for
active exchange of individuals. In desert habitats groups tend to
migrate after localised rains when temporarily aggregations of up to
300 gemsbok may occur. Groups are nomadic without any fixed home range.
Gemsbok are arid
environment animals that developed evolutionary in absence of tropical
diseases and parasites. Yet they also lack inter-animal contact and
grooming behaviour that helps to eliminate external parasites.
Therefore they can not tolerate high levels of parasite and tick
infections. They are susceptive to both hartwater and lame-sickness,
and especially to pneumonia during wet cold spells.
|Gemsbok information table
|Adult body weight
|Adult shoulder height
|Age of sexual maturity
|Age of social adulthood (1st mating)
|1st calf born at
|Post maturity age (last mating)
|Gender ratio: Natural (all ages)
|Gender ratio: Production (all ages)
|Mating ratio: Natural (adults)
|Mating ratio: Production (adults)
Absolute minimum number needed
Smallest viable population size
|Spatial behaviour: Home range
|Spatial behaviour: Territory range
|Large stock grazing unit (adult):
Dietary ratio (grass):
0.47 per animal
(65% of diet)
0.47 per animal
(65% of diet)
|Browsing unit (adult):
Dietary ratio: (browse):
0.8 per animal
(35% of diet)
0.8 per animal
(35% of diet)
|Maximum stocking load
|100 Animals per 1000 ha
(at 450-550 mm annual rainfall)
|Minimum habitat size required
|Annual population growth
||11-38% (mean 20%)
|Optimal annual rainfall
|Optimal vegetation structure:
Woody canopy cover:
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