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The Verge Review of Animals: the wildebeest

Please enjoy the implausibility

Ashley Harrell

This column is part of a series where Verge staffers post highly subjective reviews of animals. Up until now, we’ve written about animals without telling you whether they suck or rule. We are now rectifying this oversight.

One of nature’s most befuddling quadrupeds, the common wildebeest has the thick, horned bust of a buffalo, the spindly legs and wispy tail of a horse, and the scraggly whitish beard of a wizard. It is classified as none of those things, of course, and is instead considered an antelope. Without having seen many antelopes – defined as wild, two-toed ungulates that elude other classification – I can say with confidence that the wildebeest is the least comprehensible.

Wildebeests are referred to collectively as "an implausibility"The itinerant enigmas, referred to collectively as — no joke — an implausibility of wildebeests, have traveled in a giant African loop that has come to be called the Great Migration for nearly a million years. Recently, I witnessed this journey through Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park as a couple million wildebeests mowed the grass, avoided predators, reproduced and ran amok like second-rate rocking horses that should have faceplanted from the sheer weight of their heads.

The local tribesmen of the Serengetti refer to wildebeests as sifuri ubongo — "zero brains" in Swahili. Another name is gnu, a moniker coined by the Khoisan people in reference to the irritating ga-noo sound wildebeests make at all times but most frequently during their massive sex parties. During these so-called ruts, the males are judged by females based on who has the best area of grass and makes the most obnoxious noises. Biologist Richard Estes, the world’s foremost expert on wildebeests and author of The Gnu’s World, has apparently seen ruts in which bulls get so worked up fighting each other for territory that they forget the females entirely. "That defeats the whole point of the exercise," Estes once said. So are they dumb or what?

A river crossing seems informative.  Each year, hundreds of thousands of wildebeests gather at the Grumeti and Mara rivers in what’s called "building." This can last hours or days until finally, in the style of internet legend Leeroy Jenkins, one wildebeest charges into the river. The entire implausibility follows. Some tumble down the bank and break their legs; others are pushed underwater, taken downstream or savaged by crocodiles. Tens of thousands die, but the group members who make it are rewarded with fresh grass on the other side. Pretty impressive, from a utilitarian standpoint.

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The beests’ reproductive strategy -— popping out all of their babies at roughly the same time -— evolved over thousands of years, has also proven a great boon to the species. In February of each year, approximately eight months after the sex party, the lady beests drop their calves (also known as lion snacks) in the grasslands of the south Serengeti. Almost all the snacks are born during a three-week period, and there’s only so much filet mignon that the predators can stomach. A whopping 85 percent of the newborns survive, immediately learning to walk and run and quickly becoming adept at what might be considered the defining aptitude of the species – following other wildebeests. How they got so good at this has long puzzled scientists, and some have even theorized that it may involve smelling each other with their feet. Yes, wildebeests have scent glands in their hooves.

The more you learn about the creatures, the more respectable they become. Even their nightly brouhahas have purpose; those exasperating ga-noos are unique to each animal, which makes it easier for mothers and calves to find each other in large herds or the dark. After a few sleepless nights of stomping hooves and ga-nooing in the Serengeti, I couldn’t help but wander out of the tent to watch them at twilight, charging after each other like bunch of hirsute football players, only with no conceivable destination.

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Over dinner one night at the Alex Walker Serian safari camp, I posed perhaps the most important question when it comes to judging the merits of an animal: Had anyone ever ridden a wildebeest? Alex Walker — the founding father of mobile safari camps in Kenya and Tanzania and a highly-sought-after private guide — deemed it absurd. But in fact, a local Maasai warrior and camp employee called Nyuki had tried it when he was a boy. According to Nyuki, he snuck up on the wildebeest as it slept and grabbed the horns in an attempt to capture it. The wildebeest woke up and tossed Nyuki onto its back, then took off over the plains and through a grove of acacia trees. Nyuki was eventually thrown into the bush, and he never bothered a wildebeest again.

Wildebeest 1, human 0Wildebeest 1, human 0. Of course, wildebeests are poached and consumed in great quantities — our field guide estimated that 20,000 a year become beestburgers, which are apparently delicious. But with hundreds of thousands of calves surviving each year, the number of common wildebeests running in a giant circle in sub-Saharan Africa is thought to have climbed higher than 2 million. Historically, their numbers have fluctuated wildly due to disease, predation and habitat destruction, but unsurprisingly, these wildebeests are now listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as being "of least concern."

Barring natural disaster, Africa will not run out of wildebeests any time soon. And although viewers were recently able to watch a live video of the migration on YouTube, you may need to experience the implausibility firsthand to truly believe it.

(Photos by Ashley Harrell)

The Wildebeest

Verge Score: 6.0

6.0

Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • High schadenfreude value

  • Wizard beard

  • Delightful and appropriate group name

Bad Stuff

  • Terrible noises

  • Group mentality is creepy

  • Hard to ride