Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
Body length: 4.1 to 5.4 feet (125 to 165 centimeters)
Shoulder height: females, up to 2.8 feet (up to 85 centimeters); males, up to 3.4 feet (105 centimeters)
Weight: females, up to 198 pounds (90 kilograms); males, up to 265 pounds (120 kilograms)
Life span: 12 years
Gestation: about 8 months
Number of young at birth: 1
Weight at birth: 13 to 14 pounds (6 to 6.4 kilograms)
Age at maturity: 1.5 years for females, 3 years for males
Conservation status: near threatened in 1983. Current status unknown.
• The Nile lechwe was originally named Mrs. Gray’s waterbuck
by Dr. J. E. Gray, a curator at the British Museum, in honor of his wife.
• Nile lechwe are considered “royal” animals by the Shilluk (shell-LOOK) people of Sudan and are an important part of many sacred traditions within the culture.
• Adult male Nile lechwe have a shaggy “beard” running down their necks that they mark with urine to declare their status to other males and females. It takes the male a lot of practice to mark himself in this unique way!
• Both male and female Nile lechwe are very social, with males often teaming up to chase other males away from the herd.
• Even though their large horns can be used as weapons, males often use them as back scratchers, reaching parts of their backs female lechwes can only wish to scratch!
Mammals: Nile Lechwe
Most people in this part of the world have never heard of a Nile lechwe (pronounced LETCH-way or LEECH-wee). Nile lechwe belong to a family of African antelope known as Reduncines. They are native to the floodplains of the Nile River Valley, with most of the wild population living in southern Sudan and the remaining residing in western Ethiopia. The "Nile" part of their name tells you where they are from, but where in the world does the word "lechwe" come from? Lechwe is a Bantu word meaning “antelope,” a good name for the antelope calling the Nile River Valley home.
Living in an ecosystem that has seasonal flooding, the Nile lechwe have adapted to become very aquatic antelope. One of the most obvious physical adaptations to their watery environment can be seen in their long hooves. Compared to other species of antelope that prefer dry land, Nile lechwe have long, slender hooves that help them walk or run through their swampy, muddy home. While these long hooves are very helpful for moving quickly through the water, on dry land the Nile lechwe tend to look fairly clumsy. So just like basketball players, big feet help Nile lechwe move quickly in their “home court” but can make them appear awkward at other times. Male Nile lechwe will also go to the water to fight, often submerging their locked heads.
Tall, dark, and handsome
When it comes to dressing to impress, the Nile lechwe takes the cake. Males and females are the same color when they are born, but as they mature, the males change color and get much bigger. This difference in color and size within the same species is called sexual dimorphism. Male Nile lechwe develop from the blonde coloring they are born with into a dark chocolate with a blazing white patch on their shoulders when they are adults. But it isn’t just the females who take notice. It seems the flashy coat of the adult males denotes their status. With such dramatic markings, the male Nile lechwe probably do not blend in as well with their background as the females do, but because of where the Nile lechwe live, this is not a problem. On the open savanna, an adult male Nile lechwe would be an easy lunch for a lion, but in the dense vegetation provided by the swamps of the Nile, even a dark, handsome male would be camouflaged.
While antelope are not normally thought of as “talkative” animals, Nile lechwe, like many other species of antelope, actually produce vocalizations regularly. Females often make a noise sounding like the combination of a frog's croak and a pig's snort. Females also make a call directed just to their calves, and the calves have a special call they use to respond. Males produce a call somewhat similar to the female vocalization but with a bit more “snort” to it. This vocalization is often directed at other males and used in social interactions, but its purpose is not known.
The current number of Nile lechwe in the wild is unknown. The last count of the wild population was in 1983, at which time the total number of individuals was estimated to be between 30,000 and 40,000 animals. Since the 1980s, the people they share their habitat with have been in a state of turmoil. With cultural instability, increasing use of firearms, and multiplying cattle encroaching on their native area, the outlook for the Nile lechwe is unstable. Probably most threatening is a hydroelectric dam constructed south of their native floodplains in Sudan, which will likely disturb the seasonal flooding the Nile lechwe and many other species rely on. Because of the political problems in Sudan, field research has not been attempted, and much of how the Nile lechwe behave in the wild is unknown. Social stability is crucial not only for the people living in this beautiful country, but also for the creatures that inhabit it as well.