Bushbucks do indeed live up to their name, preferring dense bush or forest thickets that provide good cover and make it possible for them to survive even in human-dominated landscapes where there is suitable habitat such as in our suburb on the urban edge.
Although the trees in the exotic eucalyptus and wattle plantations in our area do not provide bushbucks with food directly, the vegetation on the margins provides them with cover and edible plants. Bushbucks are browsers and grazers, eating leaves, young shoots and pods as well as fruits and flowers and they may dig up various tubers and roots and move out from their cover to eat tender young grasses. They are known to follow foraging monkeys and hornbills to benefit from fruits and flowers that are dropped from the trees above. Unfortunately, where they have the opportunity bushbucks are not averse to visiting tasty vegetable gardens.
A pair of bushbuck early one misty morning out in the open eating young grasses on a farm in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands on the edge of mistbelt forest
Bushbucks (Tragelaphus sylvaticus) are mostly active in the early mornings, late afternoons and during the night, although they may move around during the day when it is overcast and in places where they feel secure. After venturing out to forage, they return to the dense bush of their home thicket where they spend most of their time resting during the heat the day.
Partially concealed by vegetation, a young bushbuck ram peering at me from the margins of the plantation behind our house, as I peer back at him through the fence
Perhaps more or less typical of how a bushbuck spends its time, in a study in the Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda it was found that “day and night ranges were entirely separate. Days were spent in or on the edge of the home thicket, resting 50% (often standing), feeding 38%, and moving 12% of the time. Shortly before dark, each bushbuck moved towards its night range, in open habitat, where it fed 25% of the time. When resting at night in the open, bushbucks usually lay down. All returned to their home thickets before dawn” (Estes p. 139).
Habituated to human visitors, a female bushbuck taking a nap in the shade near the chalets at Cape Vidal camp in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, KwaZulu-Natal
Bushbucks occur over much of sub-Saharan Africa where suitable habitat remains. Across their range their colouration is variable. In some regions they are darker or redder in colour, with bushbucks in some populations typically having vertical stripes and relatively more white spots on their flanks. Their colouration and markings provide good camouflage. Estes observes that their camouflage serves them well not only when they are standing in a thicket, but also when they are lying down out in the open. He reports that lions and hyenas have been seen passing by bushbucks lying down at night out in the open that were less than 9 metres away (Estes p. 139).
Female bushbucks at Cape Vidal
Adult bushbucks are mostly solitary, pairing up during courtship, although sometimes small female groups with young may occur. Female bushbucks may breed every 6 or 7 months producing one calf. The baby remains concealed for the first 4 months of its life and then remains with the mother until the next baby is born. The mother eats the placenta after the calf is born – presumably so as not to attract predators and also it would provide her with nutrition. When she visits her baby so it may suckle, she cleans up by eating any dung the baby may have dropped before she leaves it concealed on its own while she goes off to forage for food.
A female bushbuck at Cape Vidal
Bushbucks are not territorial and do not defend their range. Although they stay on their own in their home thicket they may feed peacefully in the same clearings as other bushbucks during foraging times. Bushbucks in the same area are likely to be friendly if not exactly sociable acquaintances.
A mature bushbuck ram at Cape Vidal showing his strong sharp horns
In our area we regularly see at least three male bushbuck – they are different sizes, with one being particularly large, and one has a broken horn. The males are larger and darker than the females (height ranges from 0.5 to 1m tall (25-40 inches) at the shoulder. The males carry a set of horns that are almost straight with one spiral near the base. Bushbuck rams are reputed to be pugnacious fighters when cornered or attacked, defending themselves with their sharp horns. Bushbucks emit a surprisingly loud alarm call that resembles the bark of a baboon or dog.
A bushbuck ram crossing a road at Cape Vidal
Bushbuck males are not known for fighting and any dominance hierarchy is maintained largely through ritualised display, with the older males being more senior than the youngsters.
A tree on a path used by bushbuck just outside our fence, with its scarred bark showing that it is regularly used as a scratching post and a place for rams to sharpen their horns and possibly also for scent-marking
Usually we only catch glimpses of a bushbuck walking past our fence as they tend to move away if they know they are being observed. However, last month when I quietly went down to the back fence to see if I could get a photo of the black sparrowhawks that were calling from their nesting tree, instead I had an encounter with a young bushbuck ram who remained calm and curious, so long as I remained as still as possible when he lifted his head from browsing to look towards me.
It was hard to photograph the young bushbuck ram without alarming him, and also because of the intervening vegetation and the strong contrasts of brightness and shadow in the early morning light, but this photograph conveys something of the atmosphere of wary curiosity
Lately we have set up a trail camera behind our house. Before the plantation with its thirsty trees was established a few decades back, a stream used to run in the small valley between us and the plantation. Now because of the plantation, the stream is continually dry. We have placed a small water trough outside our fence that we keep topped up by using a hose to supply water to the birds and wildlife that manage to eke out an existence on the urban edge, despite the many threats they face, including from hunting by domestic dogs and cats, traps and snares placed by poachers, and hunters using packs of dogs to flush out prey.
Our water trough receives regular visitors – mostly birds and porcupines, and occasionally also genets. Sadly the bushpigs that were here as recently as five years ago are no more. Antelope that hang out in the area are the common duiker, the blue duiker and bushbuck. Although we have not seen any of the antelope utilising the water trough they are regularly seen passing by or browsing along the pathways.
Here is a collation of recent video clips from the trail camera featuring bushbucks passing by and browsing. To our delight one of the clips features a very young calf.
The young ram stopped to give me a rather penetrating stare before resuming browsing and despite the fact that the vervet monkeys that were also visiting were very perturbed by my unusual behaviour as I skulked in the bushes as I observed the bushbuck
Dorst, Jean & Dandelot, Pierre. 1984. A Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Africa. London: Collins; Emmett, Megan. 2020. Bushbuck. https://www.awf.org/wildlife-conservation/bushbuck; Estes, Richard. 1993. The Safari Companion a Guide to Watching African Mammals. Halfway House: Russel Friedman.
Posted by Carol