Traipsing around at night in Kenya, a huge lumbering animal swooshes in the grass as it makes a break for cover. Due to the sheer size of the animal, it can be startling. A quick look in the periphery and a dull brown shaggy body with an enormous neck and ears flies out of view. In all instances, the towering 500-pound figure belonged to a Defassa waterbuck (Kobus defassa). During the day they are usually nowhere to be seen, but at night they seem to materialize out of thin air. For the longest time where they hid during the day remained a mystery to me, particularly within the confines of the short electric fences at Mpala. But finally I began to catch them in the evenings staring me down from afar, hesitant to get caught in the act. Indeed, they are the largest animals to hop the fences at Mpala, although I never managed to see one make the jump.
With thick furry hair on their long necks, waterbuck superficially look like an alpine species to me, somewhere in between a llama and an antelope. But nevertheless, they manage to thrive in the semi-arid savanna. Probably owing to their coats, waterbuck are not the most heat tolerant antelope and are prone to dehydration. They rely heavily on sources of water, drinking daily and residing nearby at the intersection of woodland and grassland habitats. Waterbuck are more sedentary than other antelope, probably due to their water requirements as well as their stealthy demeanor to avoid predation. Almost all foraging is done on grasses and low-lying vegetation (grazing as opposed to browsing), and they are quick to retreat into bodies of water or dense woodlands to escape predatory cats and wild dogs. In other parts of Africa, some Kobus species are diurnal, avoiding the heat of the day but otherwise remaining active. At Mpala, waterbuck were exclusively active during crepuscular hours and throughout the night. Only a few times I’ve spotted them before 5pm, peeking from the edge of the woodlands.
While in Kenya, I repetitively heard that waterbuck were unfavorable prey items due to their “foul taste.” I thought this was odd, not only because a single waterbuck is a large source of nutrition, but because I hadn’t heard of large mammals evolving an unpalatable taste as an antipredator strategy (feel free to tell me of an example if you can!). It turns out when in heat, waterbuck secrete a musky substance that tastes and smells foul, so it is possible predators may be less inclined to pursue them when sexually active. However, waterbuck are frequently hunted by predators, so this remains to be confirmed. Because of the musk, humans that hunt waterbuck must remove the skin entirely before cooking, otherwise the meat is distasteful. Additional sources claim the secretions may also aid in waterproofing the body when traversing through waterways.
All waterbuck photographed in situ