Sharing the zebra paddock are two young male Common Eland, Taurotragus oryx. There are three subspecies – I am not sure which the Wildplace animals are, but probably the southern subspecies T.oryx oryx. The only other species in the genus is the Northern or Giant Eland, T. derbianus. Also closely related are the eight species of Tragelaphus, including Kudu and Sitatunga. These are placed in the subfamily Bovinae of the family Bovidae, which means that although commonly called “Antelopes” they are actually more closely related to cattle than to the smaller members of the family which are often generically referred to with the same English name.
Common Eland are widely distributed across southern and eastern Africa in grassland and open bush country, and are classed as Least Concern by the IUCN. The population has however been locally wiped out by over hunting or habitat destruction. The Giant Eland is in more trouble, with a much smaller world population for all its subspecies and the western subspecies, T.derbianus derbianus being Critically Endangered.
Eland are fairly sociable animals, moving around in small herds, but they do not seem to have the highly structured society of say, zebras. Males fight during the breeding season, but there is very little variation in horn size between males and females – in fact females average slightly larger horns. They usually have only a single young each year, and live for 15 years or so, although in captivity they have reached 25.
Eland are an important element in bushmeat (wild game) in Africa, and because they have a fairly placid demeanour in captivity some attempts have been made to see if they can be domesticated. Tame Eland can be milked, and the milk is both extremely high in fat and also stores well. However, the need for extremely good fences (they can clear three metres from a standing start) and a highly nutritious diet makes it unlikely that they will become a common domesticated animal, as cattle are more useful and easier to keep.
The association of people and Eland is one of the oldest between humanity and any other species. They were undoubtedly a main prey item for most of human evolution, and today this ancient association is best shown by the key place they occupy in the beliefs of the San people of South Africa. San rock art frequently shows Eland either being hunted or in a variety of poses. The Eland is of more than just material significance – they are associated with the Creator and often with healing or major life events. I wonder whether this may give a clue to how people came to domesticate cattle, although this seems to have happened initially outside Africa in the fertile crescent and the Indus Valley. This is one of the earliest stages in the domestication of animals, and happened around 10,500 years ago at the very end of the last glaciation, and the religious status of cattle in all the early societies (and until the present day in the case of Hinduism) is rather reminiscent of the status the San give to Eland.
Leaving the Africa paddock, following the path leads you past a tract of old woodland – good for birds in the spring especially – to reach the first of the Wildplace educational exhibits, the Madagascar village and lemur walkthrough, which I will cover next time.
(Eland photos are mine)