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Aug 28, 2017 2:30 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Sightings From South Africa: The Large Herbivores

South Africa's wildlife preserves offer up-close wildlife experiences, as with this male nyala that wandered into base camp. MIKE BOTTINI
Aug 28, 2017 3:27 PM

Dotted across the savannah before us was a bewildering array of large herbivores eating their way through the South African landscape. We were a group of naturalists and wildlife biologists from northeastern North America who have been studying wildlife track and sign, or what our South African hosts would call “spoor,” for a number of years together, and for many years on our own. This was a dream trip: a chance to spend two solid weeks studying wildlife tracking, sign and trailing in the greater Kruger National Park area, with good friends and one of the leading authorities on South African wildlife: an amazing naturalist named Lee Gutteridge.We hail from a variety of habitats that we consider our “home turf” and collectively would count among our native, large herbivores the white-tailed deer, the moose, and the beaver: a grand total of three.

There is an ecological concept that states that no two species that live together can share the same “niche.” Doing so would lead to direct competition for limited resources such that one of the species would eventually outcompete the other and eliminate it from that particular ecosystem.

Looking at the large herbivores residing in the northeast, it’s easy to see that each has its own, well-defined and separate niche. The moose and deer are both browsers of leaves and buds, but the much larger moose can reach material that is too high for the deer. And the beaver can actually utilize food resources in the forest canopy by felling trees.

This concept is a bit more complicated in South Africa. Over the two-week program we had tallied 18 large South African herbivores, all co-existing in a landscape of mixed grassland, shrub thickets, and scattered tall trees. I wondered: how did they avoid competing directly with one another for the limited amount of plant foods available?

A number of these species were familiar, and their separate niches were easy to discern. The tallest among these herbivores, the giraffe, moves gracefully among the scattered trees by day, stripping leaves and flowers with their camel-like lips at a height of 8 to 20 feet above the ground. No competition there.

Another diurnal feeder and the largest of the lot, the elephant, is a generalist, shifting between browsing and grazing depending on what’s available. While it can’t reach as high in the trees as the giraffe, it is quite capable of toppling large trees and, just like the beaver, accesses tree canopy foods. It can also dig up or pull up nutritious roots and tubers with its tusks, trunk or a sturdy kick with its foot.

The second and third heaviest herbivores, the rhinoceros and the hippopotamus, tipping the scales at two to three tons each, manage to maintain their bulky bodies on a strictly grass diet. The rhino has the run of the grassland cafeteria during the day, when the hippo is bathing and keeping cool in the nearby rivers and lakes. The latter takes the night shift, moving onto land to pack in 100 pounds of grass before dawn. On the other end of the spectrum, the smallest of this group, the Sharpe’s grysbok antelope, weighing in at less than 20 pounds and measuring 18 inches at the shoulder, is a grazer that avoids the crowds on the savannah by feeding at night. The slightly larger and very nimble klipspringer antelope sticks to the rocky hillsides, filling a mountain goat type niche. And the third smallest of this group, the common duiker, is an omnivorous antelope that will feed on eggs, lizards, rodents and carrion to supplement its mostly herbaceous diet.

Of the remaining 11 species, seven are grassland grazers: sable, blesbok, cape buffalo, zebra, wildebeest, waterbuck, and steenbok. Four are browsers of leaves, bark and buds: nyala, kudu, impala, and bushbuck. Niches are separated by means of selective grass and browse species, and in some cases, grass heights. These are all fodder for future study. For now it is a challenge to discern their spoor: tracks, dung and other signs that they leave behind in their daily activities.

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