Colours of Wildlife: Sharpe's Grysbok

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Sharpe's Grysbok

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Sharpe's Grysbok by Willem

This little antelope, a Sharpe's Grysbok, Raphicerus sharpei, is a close relative of the one I featured here previously, the Cape Grysbok. Sharpe's grysbok is named after Sir Arthur Sharpe, who shot the first specimen known to science in what is today Malawi. Compared to the Cape Grysbok, it is smaller and more delicate, with a richer reddish-brown coloration, given a grizzled effect by the many interspersed white hairs. It occurs from north-east South Africa into Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania. It can't be confused with the Cape Grysbok in habitat, since the ranges of the two species are separated by about a thousand kilometres, but it can be mistaken for a Steenbok. But it is smaller and more compact, with a more skulking demeanour, and the grizzled fur is a giveaway if seen. I myself have so far only seen this species once, in the Kruger National Park.

As in the Cape Grysbok and the Oribi, the female Sharpe's Grysbok is slightly larger than the male, averaging about 7.7 kg/17 lbs compared to his 7.3 kg/16 lbs. But only the male has the short, straight, wide-set horns. The body is covered by rather long hairs for a tropical antelope, longest of all over the rump, rendering the very short tail practically invisible. Their facial scent glands are broken up into several small patches, rather than being a continuous area of naked skin. They also have scent glands on their feet and in front of their genital regions. Scent-marking, as in other small antelopes, is very important to them for proclaiming their territories.

Sharpe's Grysboks live in dry, hot country with adequate shelter. They like medium-length grass and thickets in which to hide from potential predators. They tend to hang around the bases of rocky hills, or broken, stony country with lots of shrubs. They will inhabit tall, dry woodland if there's adequate ground cover. They're active mostly at night, and although rams and ewes form loyal pair bonds, they're usually seen singly. And they're not seen often at all. They're extremely shy and secretive, and their grizzled fur actually camouflages them very well in scrubby country. By day they'll rest well-concealed in bushes and thickets; when approached too closely they'll dart out and run for new cover, or sometimes for the hole dug by an aardvark to hide in. They have a skulking way of running with a crouched posture, so that even then they're not easy to see well. If seen feeding by day, they also have a strange, hunched posture, with the forequarters lowered and the hindquarters raised high.

In shape and lifestyle, these antelopes are very primitive, resembling the first antelopes to enter Africa some 18 million years ago. They have few adaptations and are generalist feeders. They browse from low trees and shrubs, taking leaves, twigs, shoots, fruits and flowers. They often take rather coarse browse, their short little muzzles, strong teeth and jaws being able to deal with this. About a third of their food intake is grass. The bonded male and female share a territory, but only occasionally feed in each other's presence.

It appears that Sharpe's grysboks can breed any time of the year … this has to be linked to the availability of food. After mating, the ewe carries her lamb for about seven months. After birth the lamb stays hidden, the mother coming to it to feed and clean it. Older lambs accompany their mothers, only leaving to seek their own mates and territories when they're adult. They can live to the age of eight years.

Rarely seen and poorly known, these little antelopes may nevertheless be fairly common over a large region in Africa. Still, they may be declining in number. They're vulnerable to the continuing destruction of wild countryside to make way for farms and human settlements, even though they're able to adapt to feeding on vegetable crops – in which case they then open themselves up to direct persecution by the human planters of those crops. They're also hunted with dogs in some regions, but there are places in Tanzania where there's a taboo on eating their flesh, and where they consequently flourish. Overall, this species needs careful monitoring, but because of their small size, generalist lifestyle and modest needs, they're sure to respond well to conservation strategies.

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