The Cape or Southern Eland

Photo: ©Lorna Stanton / Gallo /
du P Bothma

The name ‘eland’ is the Dutch word for the elk. The eland was originally named Antilope oryx by Pallas in 1766, based on a specimen from near Cape Town. It was renamed Taurotragus oryx by Wagner in 1855. Some scientists regard it as a member of the genus Tragelaphus, based on some genetic similarities and because the eland and greater kudu hybridise. Others regard Tragelaphus and Taurotragus as paraphyletic genera which separated at last 1 000 years ago. Paraphyletic genera have a common ancestor and retain some genetic similarities but they do not include all the descendants of the common ancestor.

The Cape eland Taurotragus oryx oryx is one of three living subspecies. The other two are Livingstone’s eland, which occurs north of the Cape eland, and Patterson’s eland, which occurs in north-east Africa. The name Taurotragus is derived from the Greek and Latin words taurus for a bull and the Greek words tragos (a male goat) and elaphos (a deer). This perpetuates the myth that the eland is a relative of the elk. The scientific name means that the eland is a bull-like goat that is related to an oryx (the latter also wrong). The earliest ancestral eland Taurotragus arkelli lived a million years or so ago in Tanzania. The southern eland is depicted on the coat of arms of Namibia.


The eland is the largest of the African antelopes. An adult Cape eland bull has a shoulder height of some 1,7 m and weighs up to 940 kg as opposed to 1,5 m and 460 kg in a cow. The eland of KwaZulu-Natal are smaller than those more north but they are all a dull fawn, have no white stripes and have a characteristic dark brown mark on the back of the forelegs just above the knees. Old bulls become bluish or grey through the loss of hair. A narrow band of dark brown hair runs along the back of the neck to near the base of the tail, which has a black tassel. There is a distinct dewlap on the throat and both sexes carry straight and spirally ridged horns with those of the bulls being heavier and thicker than those of the cows. Horn buds are visible at birth and the first spiral appears in the horns of a bull when it is 15 months old. The eland is an exception to the general rule that most browsing antelopes are relatively small. It is the slowest of all the African antelopes but can maintain a trot of 22 km/h indefinitely. Walking produces a characteristic clicking sound of which the origin is controversial but it seems to come from the knees.


The Cape eland occurs in South Africa, southern Botswana and northern Namibia, and historically occurred in the Southern Cape near Cape Town at Hout Bay and the Cape Peninsula, but not in western Namibia. It normally does not occur in areas with a mean annual rainfall of less than 200 mm.


The Cape eland is highly versatile in habitat choice and formerly occurred in the greater part of the Nama Karoo, the Succulent Karoo, the fynbos and the more arid grasslands and savannas of South Africa. It is prone to tick infestation when it is introduced to wetter bushveld regions. It can occur at high elevations and has the widest habitat tolerance of all the antelopes.


A minimum of 3 000 ha is usually required to allow it to meet its dietary needs. Overall the diet of the Cape eland consists of 50 per cent browse, 45 per cent grass and 5 per cent wild fruits, but with grass being eaten mainly in the wet season and browse in the dry season when it will also pick up fallen leaves. It will visit recently burned areas to feed on the sprouting green grasses and will settle for a while in one area to feed. It breaks branches with the horns to reach the upper leaves and feeds on twigs as thick as 75 mm in diameter. It drinks some 23 litres of water in 24 hours by day or night when it is available and prefers natural waterholes but is independent of surface water.

Population characteristics

The Cape eland is gregarious and usually occurs in small herds but can form aggregations of more than 700 animals with a strict linear dominance hierarchy. It has a unique social organisation and also forms nursery and bachelor herds. The large herds break up into small herds of four to ten animals of either sex and all age classes when autumn starts, occurring at low densities in the winter. Feeding mainly occurs in the early morning and night. For thermoregulation it rests in shade when it is hot but will remain in the sun when it is cold. The range size of a herd in the wet season can vary from 174 to 422 km2 but it reduces to 9 to 58 km2 in the dry season. Bulls use ranges that are 21 to 75 km2 in size but there is no territorial defence. The sex ratio in adults in the wild is 1.2 to 1.6 cows per bull and the natural population increase varies from 11 to 38 per cent (mean: 20 per cent) depending on habitat quality and the impact of predators. Longevity is up to 25 years but usually 18 years.

Both the cow and bull become sexually mature when they are 18 months old, but the bulls will only start to breed when they are 4 to 5 years old if there are dominant adult bulls in a herd because the latter do the mating. However, bulls will breed at an earlier age if there are no dominant bulls. Breeding occurs throughout the year and the calves are usually born from 04:00 to 08:00. The gestation period lasts 273 to 280 days; the cow eats the afterbirth and the reddish-brown calf weighs around 30 kg at birth. It can run around with its mother within three or four hours of birth. The cow has four inguinal mammae and only suckles her own calf. The milk contains 11 to 17 per cent butterfat, 6 per cent protein and 4 per cent carbohydrates. The calving rate may be up to 90 per cent and the calf weans when it becomes four months old and then joins a nursery herd. Cows older than 15 years may be infertile.

Management and utilisation

Attempts to domesticate the Cape eland have been largely unsuccessful. The calf survival rate in captivity is low and an eland ox grows at a rate of 0,5 kg per day as opposed to 1,5 kg per day in cattle. The eland produces infertile hybrids with the greater kudu. The sex ratio should be around 15 adult cows per bull. The Cape eland is better adapted than cattle to hot, semi-arid regions and can be used to complement but not replace cattle. It can jump fences of 2,5 m high and fences for eland require an electrified strand 1,2 m above the ground and 225 mm away from a wire fence.

Capture and transport

Chemical capture can be done with 10 to 14 mg of M-99 for an adult bull and 6 to 8 mg for a cow, both with 180 to 200 mg of azaperone. The antidote is 20 to 30 mg of M-5050 for a bull and 12 to 16 mg for a cow. Alternatively, 15 mg of A3080 can be used for a bull and 10 mg for a cow, both with 50 mg of azaperone. Short-term tranquillisation can be done with 20 to 30 mg of haloperidol and long-term tranquillisation with 100 to 150 mg of perphenazine enanthate. Transport four to five cows, young bulls or calves in a mass crate under tranquillisation with pipes on the horns of the older animals, and with 1,45 m2 of floor space per animal. Transport adult bulls under tranquillisation and with pipes on the horns in individual crates that are 2,3 m long x 800 mm wide and 1,85 m high.

Temporary captivity

Adult and young bulls should be kept individually in pens but cows and calves can be kept together. Put pipes on the horns of adults and use tranquillisers when the animals are restless or aggressive.

Stocking densities

A rough guide is 1.02 Large Animal Units per eland (0.98 eland per Large Animal Unit) but a more refined stocking rate is 2.02 Grazer Units per eland (0.50 eland per Grazing Unit) and 2.44 Browser Units per eland (0.41 eland per Browser Unit).

Meat and live sales

The meat of an eland is of high quality. The dressing percentage is 51 per cent and the slaughtered carcass of an adult will yield 235 to 464 kg of meat. The mean price at live wildlife auctions in 2012 was R5 473 and the record price is R205 000. At a mean weight of 460 kg per animal in a population the latest mean price equates to R11,90 per kg live weight.

Trophy hunting

To judge a trophy-sized horn in the field, estimate its length and add 23 cm for the spirals for a bull and 8 cm for a cow.

Rowland Ward: Minimum horn length: 35,000 inches (89,8 cm); longest: 46,750 inches (118,75 cm) collected by Charl Kemp in Namibia in 2011.

Safari Club International: Minimum horn points: 77; best: 110,125 points collected by Burl Selden in 1987.

South African Method: Minimum horn length: 32,000 inches (81,28 cm); longest: 42,500 inches (107,95 cm) collected by JC Kriek on Nuanetsi Ranch in Zimbabwe in 1998.

Selected sources available from the editor

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