The lesser kudu (Tragelaphus imberbis) is a forest antelope found in East Africa. It is placed in the genus Tragelaphus and family Bovidae. It was first described by English zoologist Edward Blyth in 1869. The head-and-body length is typically between 110–140 cm (43–55 in). Males reach approximately 95–105 cm (37–41 in) at the shoulder, while females reach 90–100 cm (35–39 in). Males typically weigh 92–108 kg (203–238 lb) and females 56–70 kg (123–154 lb). The females and juveniles have a reddish-brown coat, while the males become yellowish grey or darker after the age of two years. Horns are present only on males. The spiral horns are 50–70 cm (20–28 in) long, and have two to two-and-a-half twists.
A pure browser, the lesser kudu feeds on foliage from bushes and trees, shoots, twigs and herbs. Despite seasonal and local variations, foliage from trees and shrubs constitute 60-80% of the diet throughout the year. The lesser kudu is mainly active at night and during the dawn, and seeks shelter in dense thickets just after the sunrise. The lesser kudu exhibits no territorial behaviour, and fights are rare. While females are gregarious, adult males prefer being solitary. There is no fixed breeding season; births may occur at any time of the year. The lesser kudu inhabits dry, flat and heavily forested regions.
The lesser kudu is native to Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda; while it is extinct in Djibouti. The total population of the lesser kudu has been estimated to be nearly 118,000, with a decreasing trend in populations. One-third of the populations survive in protected areas. Presently, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) rates the lesser kudu as "Near Threatened".
Taxonomy and genetics
The scientific name of the lesser kudu is Tragelaphus imberbis. The animal is placed in the genus Tragelaphus and family Bovidae. It was first described by English zoologist Edward Blyth in 1869. The generic name, Tragelaphus, derives from Greek word Tragos, meaning a male goat, and elaphos, which means a deer; while the specific name imberbis comes from the Latin term meaning unbearded, referring to this kudu's lack of mane. The vernacular name kudu (or koodoo) is the Hottentot name for the greater kudu, a close relative of this species. The term "lesser" denotes the smaller size and lack of mane of this antelope as compared to the greater kudu. In 1912, the genus Ammelaphus was established for just the lesser kudu by American zoologist Edmund Heller, the type species being A. strepsiceros. However, today the lesser kudu is placed in Tragelaphus instead of Ammelaphus.
The lesser kudu has 38 chromosomes, in both males and females. But unlike other tragelaphids, the X chromosome and Y chromosome are compound and fused with autosomes from ancestors having a greater chromosome number.
The lesser kudu is a spiral-horned antelope. The head-and-body length is typically between 110–140 cm (43–55 in). Males reach approximately 95–105 cm (37–41 in) at the shoulder, while females reach 90–100 cm (35–39 in). Males typically weigh 92–108 kg (203–238 lb) and females 56–70 kg (123–154 lb). The bushy tail is 25–40 cm (9.8–15.7 in) long, white underneath and with a black tip at the end.
There are distinct signs of sexual dimorphism in the antelope. The male is considerably larger than the female. The females, as well as juveniles, have a rufous coat, whereas the males become yellowish grey or darker after the age of two years. While the male has a prominent black crest of hair on the neck, this feature is not well-developed in the female. One long white stripe runs along the back, with 11-14 white stripes branching towards the sides. The chest has a central black stripe, and there is no throat beard. A black stripe runs from each eye to the nose and a white one from each eye to the centre of the dark face. A chevron is present between the eyes. The area around the lips is white, the throat has white patches and two white spots appear on each side of the lower jaw. The underparts are completely white, while the slender legs are tawny and have black and white patches. The lesser kudu is characterised by large, rounded ears. Its tracks are similar to the greater kudu's. Females have four teats. The average lifespan is 10 years in the wild, and 15 years in captivity.
Horns are present only on males. The spiral horns are 50–70 cm (20–28 in) long, and have two to two-and-a-half twists. The base circumference is 156–171 cm (61–67 in). The slender horns are dark brown and tipped with white. Male young begin developing horns after six to eight months, which reach full length after three years.
Ecology and behaviour
The lesser kudu is mainly active at night and during the dawn, and seeks shelter in dense thickets just after the sunrise. It can camouflage so well in such dense vegetation that only its ears and tail can indicate its presence. The midday is spent in rest and rumination in shaded areas. The animal spends about 35% of daytime foraging, 36% standing and lying, and 29% in roaming. As the thinnest tragelaphine, the lesser kudu can move through dense vegetation with ease. The lesser kudu is a shy and wary animal. When alarmed, the animal will stand motionless, confirming any danger. If it senses any approaching predator, it will give out a short sharp bark, similar to the bushbuck's. The lesser kudu would then make multiple leaps of up to 2 m (6.6 ft) height with an upraised tail. If captured by the predator, the victim gives a loud bleat.
The lesser kudu is gregarious in nature. There is no distinct leader or any hierarchy in the social structure. There is no territorial behaviour and fights are uncommon. While fighting, the lesser kudu will interlock horns and try pushing one another. Mutual grooming is hardly observed. Unlike most tragelaphines, females can be closely associated for several years. One to three females along with their offspring may form a group. Juvenile males leave their mothers when aged a year-and-a-half, and may form pairs. However, at the age of four to five years, males prefer a solitary lifestyle and avoiding one another, though four to five bulls may share the same home range. Lesser kudu do not usually associate with other animals, except when they feed in the same area.
A pure browser, the lesser kudu feeds on foliage from bushes and trees, shoots, twigs and herbs. It also eats flowers and fruits if available, and takes small proportions of grasses, usually in the wet season. Despite seasonal and local variations, foliage from trees and shrubs constitute 60-80% of the diet throughout the year. Foliage from creepers and vines (such as Thunbergia guerkeana and some species of Cucurbitaceae and Convulvulaceae) form 15-25% in the wet season. Fruits are consumed mainly in the dry season. Olfactory searching, much in the same posture as grazing, is used to find fallen fruits (like Melia volkensii and Acacia tortilis), while small fruits (like Commiphora species) are directly plucked from trees. The size and structure of its stomach also suggests its primary dependence on browse.
The lesser kudu browses primarily at dusk or at dawn, and is associated with the gerenuk and the impala. The lesser kudu and the gerenuk might compete for evergreen species in the dry season. However, unlike the gerenuk, the lesser kudu rarely prefers Acacia species and does not stand on its hindlegs while feeding. The lesser kudu does not have a great requirement of water, and can browse in arid environments. It eats succulent plants like the wild sisal, Sansevieria and Euphorbia species in the dry season, and will have a drink when water sources are available.
Both the males and females become sexually mature by the time they are a year-and-a-half old. However, males actually mate after the age of four to five years. Males and females are most reproductive till the age of 14 and 14–18 years respectively, with the maximum age of successful lactation in females being 13–14 years. There is no fixed breeding season; births may occur at any time of the year. A study at Dvůr Králové Zoo (Czech Republic) showed that 55% of the births occurred between September and December. A rutting male will test the urine of any female he encounters, to which the female responds by urinating. Having located a female in estrus, the male follows her closely, trying to rub his cheek on her rump, head, neck and chest. He performs gasping movements with his lips. Finally the male mounts the female, resting his head and neck on her back, in a similar way as other tragelaphines.
The gestational period is of seven to eight months, after which a single calf is born. A female about to give birth isolates herself from her group, and remains alone for some days afterward. The newborn calf weighs 4–7.5 kg (8.8–16.5 lb). Around 50% of the calves die within the first six months of birth, and only 25% can survive after three years. In a study at Basle Zoo (Switzerland), where 43% of the offspring from captive breeding died before reaching the age of six months, the major causes of high juvenile mortality were found to be the spread of white muscle disease and deficiency of vitamin E and selenium in diets. The herd size, sex, interbreeding and season did not play any role in juvenile mortality. The mother hides her calf while she goes out to feed, and returns mainly in the evening to suckle her young. She checks the calf's identity by sniffing its rump or neck. In the first month, suckling may occur for eight minutes. The mother and calf communicate with low bleats. She licks her offspring, particularly in the perineal region, and may consume its excreta.
Habitat and distribution
The lesser kudu inhabits dry, flat and heavily forested regions. It is closely associated with Acacia and Commiphora thornbush in semi-arid areas of northeastern Africa. The animal avoids open areas and long grass, preferring shaded areas with short grasses instead. Found in woodlands and hilly areas as well, the lesser kudu is generally found at altitudes below 1,200 m (3,900 ft); though they have been recorded at heights of about 1,740 m (5,710 ft) near Mount Kilimanjaro. While individual home ranges of these animals are 0.4–6.7 km2 (4,300,000–72,000,000 sq ft) in size, those of males have an average size of 2.2 km2 (24,000,000 sq ft) and those of females 1.8 km2 (19,000,000 sq ft).
The lesser kudu is native to Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda; while it is extinct in Djibouti. Largely confined to the Horn of Africa today, the species historically ranged from Awash (Ethiopia) southward through southern and eastern Ethiopia, and most parts of Somalia (except the north and the northeast) and Kenya (except the southwest). It also occurred in southeastern Sudan and northeastern and eastern parts of Uganda and Tanzania. The only evidence for its existence in the Arabian peninsula is a single set of horns obtained in 1967 from an individual shot in South Yemen and another in Saudi Arabia.
Threats and conservation
The lesser kudu's shyness and its ability to camouflage itself in dense cover has protected it from the risks of poaching. For instance, the lesser kudu is widespread in the Ogaden region, which is rich in dense bush, despite reckless hunting by local people here. However, rinderpest outbreaks, to which the lesser kudu is highly susceptible, have resulted in a steep decline of 60% in the animal's population in Tsavo National Park in Kenya. Overgrazing, human settlement, loss of habitat are some other threats to the survival of the lesser kudu.
The total population of the lesser kudu has been estimated to be nearly 118,000, with a decreasing trend in populations. The rate of decline has increased to 20% over two decades. Presently, the IUCN rates the lesser kudu as "Near Threatened". Around a third of the population of the lesser kudu occur in protected areas such as Awash, Omo and Mago National Parks (Ethiopia); Bush Bush National Park (Somalia); Tsavo National Park (Kenya); Ruaha National Park and game reserves (Tanzania); though it occurs in larger numbers outside these areas. Population density rarely exceeds 1/km2., and is generally much lower.
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