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What is a Wildebeest?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 16 November 2016
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A wildebeest is an ungulate in the genus Connochaetes which can be found in Southern, Central, and Eastern Africa. The animals roam across the plain in groups of varying sizes to seek out food and water. Wildebeest also engage in massive annual migrations in search of water in herds which can include hundreds of animals and travel over 800 miles (1,288 kilometers). The large animals are an important part of the African landscape, and are frequently sighted by people on safari.

The name originates from two Dutch Afrikaans words, meaning “wild beast.” A wildebeest can also be known by the alternate name of gnu, a word which comes from the Khoikhoi language of Africa. “Gnu” is probably an onomatopoeia, because male wildebeest make a grunting noise which sounds suspiciously similar. Whatever you call it, a wildebeest can grow to an impressive size. Some males have weighed in at over 550 pounds (250 kilograms), with cows generally weighing slightly less. In ideal conditions, a wildebeest can live to be about 20.

The wildebeest is considered a bovid, because it has even toed feet. Furthermore, the body structure of the wildebeest classifies it as an antelope. Like other antelope, a wildebeest has long, spindly legs, powerful hindquarters which give it a characteristic bounding motion, and formidable horns. Both males and females have horns, which can be used in combination with sharp hooves in a serious fight.

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In small groups, wildebeest are at risk from predators such as lions and wild dogs. They are also at risk due to encounters with humans, who hunt them for food as well as fencing off their habitat. However, a large group of wildebeest can turn the tables. Wildebeest stampedes are famous in Africa, and the animals can travel up to 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour) for at least thirty minutes when they are fleeing predators. Animals caught in their way will be run down.

Wildebeest have short glossy coats in brown to gray, with stripes made from longer, darker hair. Some species have distinct features such as beards or fetlock hair. The animals mate in the spring, after the rainy season has ended and before migrations begin. In December, female wildebeest give birth to their calves. Like many other wild animals, a young wildebeest is usually capable of keeping up with the herd within days, although it will take several months to fully mature.

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