Kobus leche leche

If the red lechwe is on your bucket list of one of the antelope species that you would like to hunt or photograph, you would have to travel to the grassy wetlands of Southern Africa.

By J Du P Bothma

Lechwes Kobus leche developed from a type of kob in Europe, and an ancestral species lived near Mount Ruwenzori 6,6 million years ago. The red lechwe is confined to the moist savannas of Southern Africa. Fossils were found in the Gladysvale Cave near Sterkfontein in Gauteng, where they lived some 578 000 to 700 000 years ago in what appears to have been a habitat of secondary, grassy wetlands.
The lechwe was first described scientifically as Kobus leche by Gray in 1850. Gray based his description on a skin from the Boteti River in the Okavango Delta that was presented to the British Museum of Natural History in London by Captain F. Varian, who had obtained it from WC Oswell. David Livingstone was the first European to see the red lechwe alive when he visited Lake Ngami during an expedition in 1857. A. Smith created the scientific name Kobus in 1832 for the waterbuck Kobus ellipsiprymnus and related antelopes such as the lechwes. It is based on a New Latin word that originated from an African name, koba, while the name ‘lechwe’ is derived from the Setswana name letswee for the red lechwe.

The red lechwe is an antelope of medium size with a mean shoulder height of 105 cm in a male and 101 cm in a female, with mean weights of 112 kg and 80 kg respectively, but this varies regionally. The coat colour is reddish-yellow to golden-brown on the upper parts of the body and the flanks, while the white on the underparts extends onto the inside of the legs and to the base of the tail. The throat and the part from the chest to the chin are white. The front of the forelegs is black and the males are darker than the females. The hooves are distinctly elongated although not as much as in the sitatunga Tragelaphus spekii. These hooves spread out sideways to help a lechwe to move about on soft, muddy ground. The hind legs are a little longer than the forelegs to aid long-distance running in marshy areas.
Only the males carry long, heavily ridged, spiralled, lyre-shaped horns that sweep backward, outward and upward to smooth tips. The horns are straight for the first few months of life and reach their maximum length at the age of 4,5 years. Lechwes use knee-deep water as protection from predators and their legs are covered in a water-repellent substance, which promotes fast running through water. However, they seem to have a poorly developed sense of smell.

Lechwes have a localised distribution due to their marshy habitat preference. There are three living subspecies: the red lechwe Kobus leche leche, which occurs in the southern wetlands of Zambia, Zimbabwe, northern Botswana and the floodplains of the Caprivi Strip in Namibia; the black lechwe Kobus leche smithemani, which is limited to the Bangweulu Swamps of Zambia; and the Kafue Flats lechwe Kobus leche kafuensis, which is confined to the floodplains of the Kafue River in Zambia. Robert’s lechwe Kobus leche robertsi once occurred along the Luongo and Luena rivers and the Pambashye Swamps in north-western Zambia but is now extinct. The related Nile lechwe Kobus megaceros is found in seasonally flooded swamps and grasslands in Sudan and western Ethiopia.

Lechwes are specialised in their habitat requirements and occur by preference in marshy areas, being rarely found more than 3 km away from permanent water. The characteristic habitat is a shallow floodplain that fringes on swamps and rivers on the transitional ecotone between tall beds of papyrus, reeds, semi-aquatic grasses and dry land. During floods, the lechwe moves ahead of the floodwaters onto shallowly inundated floodplains, but it moves back into the swamps as the waters subside.

Different herds of the red lechwe may aggregate in their thousands although the individual herd size usually varies from 15 to 20 animals. The herds are usually of the same sex and age, although the sexes mix when mating and the herds continually change in composition. The red lechwe is usually active from just before sunrise to the early morning, with some being active throughout the daylight hours. However, it rests during the hottest time of the day on the drier parts of the habitat, often on islands in swamps. At night, red lechwes lie up near the edge of the water into which they will scatter when disturbed. When running, a lechwe lowers its head with the muzzle pointing forward until the neck is nearly parallel with the ground. In males, the horns are held low on the shoulders.
The adult males are territorial for a few months of the year when water levels are high. They then gather a herd of females on a mating ground, known as a lek, which has a diameter of some 50 to 100 m. Territorial males display and spar often, but with little real physical contact. They may also chase each other for up to a kilometre but the females and young pay them little attention. When evicted from his territory, a male joins a bachelor herd. Herds of females move around freely between the mating grounds unless a male keeps the females within the boundaries of his territory.
The nutrient-poor Kalahari sands of the Okavango region in Botswana and the small amplitude of 100 mm in the floodwater level create a floodplain that is seldom wider than 1 km. Consequently, the lechwes there occur at densities of 7 to 12 per km2 but they may occasionally form aggregations of up to 100 animals. The females show a preference for particular leks that are probably delineated by olfactory clues that are left by other females.
In the males, attaining a body weight of 55 kg seems to be critical for reaching puberty. Although a male may be able to reproduce from the age of 15 months, social behaviour will prevent him from doing so until he becomes territorial at the age of some four years. The female attains sexual maturity at the age of one to two years. The main mating season is from April to June and rising water levels may act as a stimulus to induce mating. A male may mount a female in oestrus up to 20 times to copulate, and when fertilisation occurs, the embryo is invariably implanted in the right horn of the uterus.
Calves are born throughout the year, but with a peak from October to December. A calf weighing 5 kg at birth is born after a gestation period of some 225 days at a time when the floodwaters are receding and the onset of the wet season produces a lush growth of grasses. The females leave the herd alone or in groups to give birth in the cover of tall grass on islands in a swamp or on dry ground. The calves remain hidden for the first two to three weeks but they suckle throughout the day. The female has two pairs of inguinal mammae. Weaning is estimated to occur at an age of six to seven months but a female may continue to suckle a calf for up to three months after her next conception.
Calf mortality can be as high as 50 per cent where large carnivores are present. A lechwe will take to the water freely and swims strongly but in the Linyanti Swamp of Botswana, lions regularly wade or swim to islands to prey on lechwes and sitatungas.

The mean composition of the diet of a lechwe is 95 per cent grasses and herbs and 5 per cent browse. The diet mainly consists of semi-aquatic grasses and the lechwe selects new growth to eat. However, sedges and the leaves of broad-leaved plants, such as leadwood shrubs Combretum imberbe, are also eaten. Lechwes will rarely drink water during the cool, dry season but during the hot, dry season they will drink at a mean rate of three times per day.

The red lechwe is an exotic animal with specialised habitat requirements. It falls under the ambit of the Biodiversity Act and keeping it will require the necessary permits. For best management a wildlife ranch should contain adequate wetlands. Where wetlands have been destroyed or are absent they can be rehabilitated or new ones can be established.

Capture and transport
The chemical capture and tranquillisation of wildlife should always be done under the supervision of a wildlife veterinarian. Chemical capture of adult red lechwes can be done with 4 to 6 mg of M99, combined with 80 mg of azaperone, and with 8 to 12 mg of M5050 as an antidote. Alternatively, use 4 mg of A3080, combined with 80 mg of azaperone, and with 75 to 90 mg of naltrexone as an antidote. For short-acting tranquillisation of an adult male, 10 to 15 mg of haloperidol can be used, for an adult female 10 mg, for a juvenile 8 mg and for a calf 5 mg. Long-acting tranquillisation requires 50 to 100 mg of perphenazine enanthate. Mass crates can be used for females and young with 0,5 m2 of floor space per animal and 17 to 20 animals per crate. Individual crates of 1,4 m long x 400 mm wide x 1,25 m tall should be used for bulls. All the adults should be tranquillised.

Temporary captivity
Due to their specialised habitat requirements, lechwes should best not be kept in temporary captivity.

Stocking density
Because of their specialised habitat, red lechwe stocking densities will depend on the extent of the available wetlands.

Meat and live sales
Red lechwes are often poached for their meat. The carcass dresses out at a mean of 58 per cent of the live weight of a lechwe. Red lechwes at first declined in value on live wildlife auctions but the mean price per animal increased by 30,32 per cent from R12 505 in 2013 to R16 297 in 2014.

The months of December to January should be avoided because of full pregnancy or the presence of many young calves. The current best recorded horns are:
• Rowland Ward:
Minimum horn length: 26,000 inches (66,000 cm); best: 35,000 inches (88,900 cm) from Ngamiland in Botswana and housed in the British Museum of Natural History.
• Safari Club International:
Minimum horn points: 58; best: 79,625 points held by T. du Plessis.
• South African Method:
Minimum horn length: 25,000 inches (63,500 cm); best: 30,625 inches (77,788 cm) held by
J.O. van Niekerk. ASM

Selected sources
Bothma, J du P & JG du Toit (Eds). In Press. Game ranch management, sixth edition. Pretoria: Van Schaik.
Cloete, F. 2015. Lewendewild-handel stoom voort. GAME & HUNT 21(02): 71–74.
Grubb, P. 1999. Types and type localities of ungulates named from southern Africa. Koedoe 42(2): 13–45.
Grubb, P. 2005. Order Artiodactyla. In: DE Wilson & DM Reeder (Eds). Mammal species of the world, third edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
pp 720–721.
Lacruz, RS, JS Brink, PJ Hancox, AR Skinner, A Herries, P Schmid, & LR Berger. 2002. Palaeontology and geological context of a middle Pleistocene faunal assemblage from Gladysvale Cave, South Africa. Palaeontologia africana 38: 99–114.
Skinner, JD & CT Chimimba (Eds). 2005. The mammals of the southern African subregion, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 683–685.
Van Rooyen, N. In Press. Veld management in the African savannas under current climatic conditions. In: J du P Bothma & JG du Toit (Eds), Game ranch management, sixth edition. Pretoria: Van Schaik.