Alcelaphus buselaphushartebeest

Geographic Range

The hartebeest, Alcelaphus buselaphus, was originally found in grasslands throughout the African continent (Walker 1997). It ranged from Morroco to northeastern Tanzania and, south of the Congo, it ranged from southern Angola to South Africa. Its range has been drastically reduced, however, due to hunting by humans, habitat destruction and foraging competition with domestic cattle. Now the hartebeest is found only in parts of Botswana, Namibia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Kenya.


A. buselaphus inhabits the savannahs and grasslands of Africa. It is tolerant of high grasses and may be found in woodland or scrubs areas more than other alcelaphines (Nowak 1997; Schaller 1972; African Wildlife Foundation).

Physical Description

The hartebeest is a large ungulate ranging from 1.5 m to 2.45 m in length. Its tail is 300 to 700 mm and shoulder height is 1.1 to 1.5 m. It is characterized by a steeply sloping back, long legs, large glands below the eyes, a tufted tail, and a long, narrow rostrum. The body hair is about 25mm long and is quite fine in texture. It has paler patches of hair on most of its rump and chest and on parts of its face. It has been suggested that the pale hair on the rump may be presented in attracting mates or to ward off aggressors. There are several subspecies which are distinguished from each other by coat color, which varies from pale brown to brownish gray, and by horn shape. All subspecies have 2 horns, in both sexes, that rise from a single pedicel and are 450 to 700mm in length. Sexual maturity may occur as early as 12 months, but members of this species do not reach their maximum weight until 4 years of age (Kingdon 1989). The hartebeest has a lifespan of 11 to 20 years (Walker 1997; African Wildlife Foundation).

  • Range mass
    75 to 200 kg
    165.20 to 440.53 lb


Breeding in A. buselaphus takes place in territories that are defended by single males, preferably in open areas on plateaus or ridges (African Wildlife Foundation). Territorial males sniff the female's genitalia. If she is estrous, the male follows her around with his ears depressed. He will occasionally position himself laterally to the female and attempt to block her way. Once the female stands still, she allows the male to mount her. Copulation is brief but may be repeated several times. Copulation is always interrupted if another male intrudes. The intruder is usually chased away (Kingdon 1989). Reproduction varies seasonally depending on the population or subspecies of Hartebeest involved. Nowak (1997) reports that there are birth peaks from October to November in South Africa, December to February in Ethiopia, and February to March in Nairobi National Park. Gestation is 214-242 days and usually a single calf is born. Females isolate themselves in scrub areas to give birth (Schaller 1972; African Wildlife Foundation). This is markedly different than the birthing habits of their close relative the wildebeest, which give birth in groups on the open plains. Female A. buselaphus then leave their young hidden in the scrub for a few weeks, coming back only to suckle. Young are weaned at four months (Kingdon 1989).

  • Breeding interval
    Female hartebeest bear a single offspring no more than once per year.
  • Breeding season
    Mating season varies in this species, depending on the location of the population.
  • Range number of offspring
    1 to 1
  • Average number of offspring
  • Range gestation period
    7.13 to 8.07 months
  • Range weaning age
    4 to 8 months
  • Average weaning age
    4 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    730 days
  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • post-independence association with parents



Hartebeests are social animals living in organized herds of up to 300 animals. They have been known to form aggregations of up to 10,000 animals. Within a herd, there four types of animals: territorial adult males, nonterritorial adult males, groups of young males, and groups of females and young. Females within a herd form groups of 5-12 animals with up to four generations of offspring in their group. They do not form secure groups with other adult females. It is thought that there are strong dominance relationships between females and that these groups define the social organization for the entire herd. Females have been observed to occasionally fight one another (Kingdon 1989). Male offspring may remain with their mother for up to three years, but usually leave their mothers at about 20 months to join groups of other young males. At 3 to 4 years old, males may begin to attempt to take over a territory and the females within it. Once a territory has been established, the male will defend it and does not usually leave. Males are aggressive and if challenged will fight. A series of head movements and stances, and depositing droppings on established dung piles, precedes any contact. If that does not suffice, males bend forward and leap with their horns lowered. Injuries and fatalities do occur but are quite rare. Females and young may move in and out of the territories freely, following the best grazing. Males lose their territory after 7 to 8 years.

Hartebeests are usually conspicuous and sedentary. They may have a sentinel to warn the herd of predators. Although appearing slightly awkward, they may reach speeds of 70 to 80 kph. Schaller notes that they are very alert and cautious in comparison to other plains ungulates. Hartebeests rely primarily on their vision to spot predators, and they snort to warn each other of approaching danger. They gallup away in single file, after they see one of the members of the herd bolt (Kingdon 1989). They have been observed tacking, that is making a sharp 90 degree turn after taking only 1-2 strides in a given direction (Caro 1994; Nowak 1997; Schaller 1972; African Wildlife Foundation).

A. buselaphus does not migrate, although during extreme conditions, such as a drought, a population may significantly change location (Verlinden 1998).

Communication and Perception

Food Habits

Hartebeests are grazers that feed almost entirely on grass (African Wildlife Foundation). Greater than 95% of their food in the wet season (October to May) is grass and grass never comprises any less than 80% of their diet (Schuette 1998). Schuette determined that A. buselaphus in Burkina Faso, West Africa eats primarily Andropogon grass during the rainy season. Between seasons their diet is primarily Culms grass. It eats a small percentage of Hyparrhenia (a grass) and legumes throughout the year. Jasminium kerstingii is also part of its diet at the beginning of the rainy season. The hartebeest is exceptionally tolerant of poor-quality food. Schuette argues that the long rostrum in A. bucelaphus enhances mastication ability and allows it to crop grasses better than other bovids. Thus, when availibility of succulent grasses is limited, as in the dry season, the hartebeest is able to eat the tougher senescent grasses. It has been substantiated elsewhere that A. buselaphus is able to digest a higher percentage of its food than other bovids (Murray 1993).

  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • seeds, grains, and nuts

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

The hartebeest is a prized game animal both for its meat, which is recognized as having excellent flavor, and as a trophy. Presently, hunting travel packages that include seeking hartebeests are easy to come by on the internet (African Safari Consultants). Since it is fairly sedentary and easily visible, the hartebeest is fairly easy to hunt (Kingdon 1989).

  • Positive Impacts
  • food

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

The hartebeest competes with cattle for grazing land. Although their meat it desirable, hartebeests exhibit a complex social system and are hard to maintain in a closed environment. For this reason, they are not good candidates for domestication. They are rare at zoos because they are dangerous to people and each other if closely confined (Kingdon 1989).

Conservation Status

Swayne's hartebeest (A. buselaphus swaynei) and the Tora hartebeest (A. buselaphus tora) are endangered because of small and continually declining populations. Four other subspecies are classified as lower risk by the IUCN, but will be rated threatened or endangered if ongoing conservation efforts are ended. The reasons for population declines are unknown but have been attributed to the expansion of cattle into hartebeest feeding territories and, to a lesser extent, habitat destruction and hunting. Kindon (1989) remarks that "the hartebeest has probably suffered the greatest contraction in range of all African ruminants." Once prolific in Africa it now has very limited territories.

Other Comments

There is evidence that the hartebeest once was domesticated by the ancient Egyptians and used as a sacrificial animal (Kingdon 1990 and African Wildlife Foundation).


Kristin Batty (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Phil Myers (editor), Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

World Map


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


an animal that mainly eats leaves.


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

sexual ornamentation

one of the sexes (usually males) has special physical structures used in courting the other sex or fighting the same sex. For example: antlers, elongated tails, special spurs.


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.


"African Safari Consultants" (On-line). Accessed October 14, 1999 at

"African Wildlife Foundation" (On-line). Accessed October 11, 1999 at

"IUCN" (On-line). Accessed November 7, 1999 at

Caro, T. 1994. Ungulate Antipredator Behaviour: Preliminary and Comparative Data from African Bovids. Behaviour, 128 (3-4): 189-228.

Kingdon, A. 1989. East African Mammals: An Atlas of Evolution in Africa Volume III Part D (Bovids). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Murray, M. June 1993. Compariative nutrition of wildebeest, hartebeest and topi in the Serengeti. African Journal of Ecology, 31 (2): 172-177.

Nowak, R. 1997. Walker's Mammals of the World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Schaller, G. 1972. The Serengeti Lion: A Study of Predator Prey Relations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schuette, J., D. Leslie Jr., R. Lochmiller, J. Jenks. 1998. Diets of Hartebeest and Roan Antelope in Burkina Faso: Support of the Long-Faced Hypothesis. Journal of Mammalogy, 79 (2): 426-436.

Verlinden, A. 1998. Seasonal movement patterns of some ungulates in the Kalahari ecosysystem of Botswana between 1990 and 1995. African Journal of Ecology, 36: 117-128.