The sun was up but not showing through the clouds. The savanna in Nairobi National Park had taken on a soft green look, almost pastel in texture. It was 6:50 AM as we cruised slowly along a dirt track. Robinson, our guide, had raised the roof of his Landcruiser so we could stand and look in all directions. My hands gripped the sides while my binoculars and camera swung from my neck. With each bump, the car rocked to one side or the other, banging us back and forth. Then suddenly, something caught my eye, just a little way out in the grass stood an antelope.
“Stop! Please! What’s that?” I yelled.
His breaking caused me to fall forward, but my grip held. “Hartebeest,” Robinson said.
My binoculars came to my eyes, and my body pressed hard against the car’s side. This was my first sighting of an antelope in Africa. I’d expected it to be a gazelle or impala, but this was perfect. The Coke’s Hartebeest stood three-feet tall at the shoulders, bigger than either of those. The antelope held its head even higher. Two blackish horns rose between the ears, twisting out and forward before going backward. They weren’t long, less than a foot, but looked solid, thick at the base. The horns grew from a boney extension rising between the ears.
Their name is thought to have originated from an Afrikaans word that meant “deer beast.” Robinson added, “The Swahili name is Kongoni and generally just refers to this variety.” That name had popped up many times in Elspeth Huxley’s book on her childhood in Kenya. Taxonomists have described eight subspecies, and this one, Alcelaphus buselaphus cokii, occurs in Kenya and northern Tanzania. The shape of the horns varies between those taxa. This species had been prized for their meat by European settlers.
In recent decades, Coke’s Hartebeest numbers have fallen dramatically, and now about 40,000 survive in Kenya and Tanzania, mostly in protected areas. They are diurnal and feed on grasses and herbaceous vegetation. Usually, they occur in small herds, so I was surprised to see this one by itself.
The antelope started to walk toward us. Its face was long, coming down to a narrow muzzle. The coat a cinnamon brown, with light upper legs and dark lower ones, almost like it wore knee socks. The hartebeest strolled on long, thin legs that would be excellent for running. I looked back in the direction we’d come; not twenty minutes ago, we’d seen two very thin male lions in the middle of the road. They hunt these antelope, but this one was alert. Its ears went back and forth, attuned to any sound. Its eyes were big and prominent on the sides of its head. Every direction would be visible simultaneously. These mammals are probably very good at avoiding predation, and those horns would be a formidable weapon.
After halving the distance toward us, it turned and started to trout through the grass, disappearing in a second, and I wondered if it had spotted some of its comrades.