Springbok: South Africa’s National Animal

Visitors to the many game parks and nature reserves of South Africa are very likely to come across the country’s national animal – the springbok. This graceful medium-sized antelope, with distinctive brown and white markings, large upright ears and curved horns, gets its name from the Dutch words spring (jump) and bok (goat) and nature lovers who see the springbok in action will soon understand why. Moving with amazing agility and reaching speeds of up to 100 km/h, the springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis marsupialis) can leap up to 4 meters through the air as it flees predators. Although in the past springbok were found in large herds, the fencing off of farms has disrupted their migratory patterns and hunters have decimated their numbers. Nonetheless, the springbok remains the most plentiful antelope in South Africa.

The springbok’s Latin name marsupialis is a reference to the skin flap extending from the tail along the middle of its back in a pocket-like fashion which the male springbok uses to ward off predators, or attract a mate. When the male wants to show off his strength and fitness he goes into a stiff-legged trot, and jumps in the air with a sharply arched back and all four feet off the ground, bringing its feet close together under its body. This arching action lifts the skin flap, making the long white hairs under the animal’s tail stand up and fan out, while at the same time emitting a potent scent – attractive to potential mates and a deterrent to predators. This ritual is referred to as stotting or pronking, the former term coming from the Scots verb meaning to ‘walk with a bounce’, and the latter from the Afrikaans word for ‘showing off’ or ‘strutting’.

In the summer months, springbok sleep in the shade of shrubs and other vegetation, while in cooler weather they generally lie out in the sun. They are very active in the early morning hours and at dusk, when they eat grasses, shrubs and succulents, depending on the season. They are able to derive all the moisture they need from their diet, and can go for extended periods without a water source. Mixed sex herds are fairly common, generally with three females to every male. Dominant males are known to round up a family group of females and young ones, aggressively keeping bachelors out of the group. Females often leave the herd to give birth alone, or with other females giving birth. These nursery herds remain separate from the family group and bachelor herds, and once a male springbok is weaned, it leaves to join bachelor groups, while female offspring remain with their mothers, in time becoming part of a harem.

Throughout human history in its terrain, the springbok has been hunted for its flesh and attractive coat. Today there are a number of farms raising springbok for commercial consumption and hunting, but seeing this animal in the wild is a treat for all who visit South Africa’s conservation areas.