Relicts of Africa: Hunter’s Hartebeest

The Western Cape Province within the Republic of South Africa is known for many things.  It is known as the home of the City of Cape Town and Table Mountain (one of the Seven Wonders of Nature), the home of Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela spent many years imprisoned) and the immensely diverse Cape Floral Kingdom, the home of the world renowned Garden Route and Cape Agulhas (the southernmost point of Africa), the home of Stellenbosch and its world renowned vineyards and wine.  In contrast the Western Cape Province is less known for its herds of wildlife, for its scores of elephants, rhinos, buffalo, lions and leopards, and even less so for the relicts of Africa which once knew this southern land as their home!
Hirola Tsavo East National Park Kenya
Hunter’s hartebeest in semi arid grasslands of northern Kenya.

After being settled by hunter-gathering San Bushmen, pastoral Khoikhoi herdsmen and their massive herds of cattle sheep, and goats, Dutch East India Company men, and later the British Empire, much of the natural resources of the Cape in the form of wildlife had either disappeared entirely or moved to more northern regions of the Southern African Subcontinent.

The colonial era saw to the extinction of Cape quagga and blue antelope, while Cape mountain zebra and bontebok only just survived from a few dozen individuals that found refuge from the hands of hunters among compassionate farming communities.  During this time the large herds of plains game similarly disappeared, being ever driven northward by the expanding hunting and later agricultural exploits of man.

Prior to the arrival of European settlers to these southern shores, the arrival of the pastoral Khoikhoi herdsmen and their livestock marked the slow and gradual disappearance of many species from what was later to become the Western Cape province.  Competition for grazing resources during the dry months of the year altered sensitive landscapes that were preferred by habitat specific grazers to such an extent that many species started to dwindle at the onset of pastoralism many years prior to European settlement.  Animals especially affected by the presence of large herds of cattle and sheep were those antelopes that inhabited specific niches within landscapes such as wetlands and climax-grass dominated grasslands (especially so the Themeda triandra grass dominated habitats that were once prevalent in the southern and south-western Cape).  These animals whose populations began to dwindle at the arrival of the Khoikhoi peoples in the Western Cape were the blue antelope (Hippotragus leucophaeus), roan antelope (Hippotragus equinus), common reedbuck (Redunca arundinum), and bontebok (Damaliscus pygargus pygargus).

Of the above mentioned species, the blue antelope became extinct in the year 1799/1800, the roan antelope and common reedbuck became so marginalised that they only just made it into the journals of European settlers during the 1650’s to 1750’s before dying out in the Cape, and only the bontebok remains today.  But during the time before written accounts made their way into this part of Africa, the Western Cape and its neighbouring provinces within the Republic of South Africa was also the home of relatively unknown species.  So unknown, indeed, that their very presence in this southern part of Africa has alluded the thoughts of the local inhabitants at present.  They are the relicts.

Hirola      Beatragus hunteri    Ishaqbini conservancy   Kenya

These animals to have totally disappeared from the Western Cape and the entire face of southern Africa survive today only as relict populations as competition with livestock has diminished their numbers on a continental scale.  One of these once widespread animals to have inhabited the Republic of South Africa right down to the Atlantic and Indian Ocean shores were the Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi), which became known as the Cape Zebra to modern archaeologists after uncovering their remains throughout the Western, Eastern and Northern Cape, and North-West and Free State Provinces (as discussed in the first article on the Relicts of Africa: Grevy’s Zebra).  A second species to have disappeared from southern Africa is the Hunter’s hartebeest (Beatragus hunteri).

Upon arrival in what was later to become the modern boundaries of the Republic of South Africa, the early European naturalists to have explored the land and its immense array of wildlife went on to describe many shades of red among the Hartebeest antelope family.  Of these many species called South Africa home.  First to be described was the red hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus caama) and bontebok (Damaliscus pygargus pygargus), then came the blesbok (Damaliscus pygargus philipsi), tsessebe (Damaliscus lunatus), and Lichtenstein’s hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus lichtensteini).  But certainly the most intriguing hartebeest to have inhabited South Africa was the Hunter’s hartebeest or hirola (Beatragus hunteri); not because of their unique appearance or character, but because of the fact that today they occur as a relict population over 5500 km (3400 miles) away.

The first evidence to the existence of Hunter’s hartebeest in South Africa came in the form of skeletal remains uncovered at Elandsfontein along the West Coast (close to the town of Langebaan) where they lived alongside Cape zebra, quagga (Equus quagga quagga), bontebok, blue antelope, black wildebeest (Connochaetes gnou) and white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum).  Since those early days of natural abundance the Hunter’s hartebeest began to dwindle as competition of grazing increased along the coastal forelands of the Cape.  Their range retracted ever northward and eastward into East Africa, until they were reduced to their current range in Kenya.

The Hirola 3


Within modern times, the Hunter’s hartebeest population underwent serious declines from a high of around 18,000 individuals spread across Somalia and Kenya during 1979, to a low of between 300 and 500 individuals surviving solely in Kenya.  Today they are considered to be the most endangered antelope in Africa spread across communal lands and a few nature reserve and national park.  Further threats to their continued survival include the fact that no populations occur in captivity to serve as a backup in case of an epidemic of other source of destruction to the last surviving individuals.  This begs the question as to what role the Republic of South Africa (with its highly developed wildlife industry and conservation organizations) could serve as to the continued survival of this ancient inhabitant of the southernmost country on the continent of Africa?

Hirola Tsavo East National Park Kenya
Hunter’s hartebeest in Tsavo East National Park, Kenya.

Coming from the first WildswinkelBoland Auction 2017 (a game auction2and the first of its kind to be hosted in the Boland region within 50 km from the City of Cape Town CBD), where various wildlife species were sold to and among the private sector of the South African wildlife industry3, including the first rebred quagga to be sold on auction, African buffalo (Synceros caffer), bontebok, endangered Cape mountain zebra (Equus zebra zebra), kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros), and giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), I cannot help but think that the very continued survival of some of the relict species that once occurred in South Africa may well lie in the translocation of compromised herds to suitable land within the Republic of South Africa.  Such a translocation may easily be facilitated by any of the key role players within the wildlife industry as they are already actively involved in the preservation of South Africa’s wildlife heritage.  Among the role players in the wildlife industry present at the game auction were husband and wife team, Fernando & Suzanne Rueda, who reintroduced the first roan antelope back onto their ancient homelands near the City of Cape Town on their private reserve Arc-En-Ciel (, among many other species.

Maybe one day this relict species, the Hunter’s hartebeest, will again call the grasslands and scrub country of South Africa home!  That is if action could be taken before another African species falls into the deep abyss of extinction!

Marcel van der Merwe II  |  Rewilding Forum

  1. “Wildswinkel” is a company within the South African “Wildlife Industry” (
  2. “Game Auction” is the term used for an auction in Southern African countries where wildlife species are auctioned off to the highest bidders for the breeding of rare species on private farms, ranches, and reserves (to aid in the continued survival of good wildlife genetics among wildlife populations of privately owned land often far removed from other wildlife populations and in a mosaic with livestock or plant production).
  3. “Wildlife Industry” is an industry whereby wildlife species belong to private landowners and are allowed to proliferate on private lands (granted that specific fencing and veterinary requirements are met by the respective land owners for the respective wildlife species contained within the private property).


Photo Credits

Image 1. & 4. –

Image 2. –

Image 3. –



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