The Zoologist/4th series, vol 5 (1901)/Issue 726/The Blaauwbok (Hippotragus leucophæus), Renshaw

The Blaauwbok (Hippotragus leucophæus)
by Graham Renshaw

Published in The Zoologist, 4th series, vol 5, issue 726, December 1901, p. 441–448

Zoologist, 1901.

Plate III.

blaauwbok bull (hippotragus leucophæus) in the leyden museum.


No. 726.—December, 1901.


By Graham Renshaw, M.B.

(Plate III.)

The astonishing fecundity of many animals has for long years been a subject of interest to the zoologist, though unfortunately too often a curse to the colonist and to the farmer. The species possessing this marvellous vitality flourish even under the most adverse circumstances, in spite of the attacks of countless enemies, even when man himself is added to the list of destroyers—such species as the White Cabbage Butterflies amongst insects, the Herring amongst fishes, the House-Sparrow amongst birds, and Rats and Rabbits amongst the Mammalia.

On the other hand, to-day we deplore the loss of many fine animals, some of which have perished from unknown causes, or from natural changes in their environment; the remainder, alas! have been directly harried out of existence by man, either for food—for the sake of the paltry commercial value of their skins or carcases—or (still less excusably) in sheer wasteful wanton destruction, the hunters killing for killing's sake. How far these mournful results might have been avoided it is impossible now to say, but the facts remain. Never again will the gigantic Moa (Dinornis sp.) wander through the ferny solitudes of New Zealand, its towering Ostrich-like head carried twelve feet high as it strides with ponderous gait over the limestone slopes; never again will the Dodo (Didus ineptus), rotund and ungainly, waddle through the forest glades of Mauritius; and never again will the surf-beaten rocks of Geirfuglaskér resound with the clamour of swarming multitudes of Great Auks swimming and diving in the foam, or sitting in line on the slippery ledges like regiments of gigantic Razorbills. Steller's Sea-Cow (Rhytina gigas) no longer blackens the shallows round Behring's Island, lazily browsing on the laminaria; the true Quagga (Equus quagga) no longer gallops over the spreading veldt in close-packed masses, accompanied by herds of lumbering Wildebeeste; and the American Bison, once monarch of the prairies, now finds a tardy refuge from extermination in the parks and zoological gardens of civilized man.

It has long been noticed that the first species to disappear are those of large size and limited range, being more conspicuous, and also relatively fewer in individuals than smaller and cosmopolitan forms. Thus the great Copper Butterfly (Chrysophanus dispar), once abundant in our own fenland (but in its typical form known nowhere else), has been extinct since 1860; the Solitaire of Rodriguez might still have existed had it not been a gigantic Pigeon good to eat and unable to fly; and the more than decimated White Rhinoceros might have been better represented than by a few survivors in Mashonaland and the Zululand preserves had it possessed the diminutive proportions and inhabited the mountain fastnesses of the Cape Hyrax.

Amongst the vanished Mammalia was a beautiful Antelope—the Blaauwbok (Hippotragus leucophæus)—formerly inhabiting the province of Swellendam, in Cape Colony, but since 1800 at latest utterly extinct. So early was this fine animal exterminated, and so rare are its remains in museums to-day, the most recent being of necessity over a century old, that but very little is known about it; and for every zoologist who has heard of the Blaauwbok, there are probably five hundred who have heard of the Great Auk and the Norfolk Island Parrot. The Blaauwbok stood about 40 or 45 in. high at the withers, as far as can now be ascertained; it carried a handsome pair of curved horns adorned with well-marked annulations, and terminating in sharp points; it was bluish grey above (the coat showing a beautiful velvety appearance during life), and snow-white beneath, there being no marked demarcation between the colours: indeed, Le Vaillant says that when seen from a distance the living animal appeared to be entirely white. The Blaauwbok derived its specific name leucophæa from a whitish spot just in front of and beneath the eye; the anterior surfaces of the limbs were darker than the posterior. The ears were rather long; the neck bore a very short mane, reversed like that of an Oryx Antelope.

An alleged change of colour in the skin of the Blaauwbok after death has given rise to some comment. Pennant, in his 'History of Quadrupeds,' says:—"Colour, when alive, a fine blue of a velvet appearance; when dead changes to bluish grey with a mixture of white." Dr. Sparrman, who travelled in South Africa during 1772–1776, in mentioning the Blaauwbok, observes: "On this subject the reader may likewise turn to Mr. Pennant's Blue Antelope"; and also says: "The colour of this creature when alive is said to resemble that of blue velvet, but when it is dead it is of a leaden colour." Le Vaillant, who obtained a Blaauwbok bull in December, 1781, states that the colour of the animal was faint blue inclining to grey, with snowwhite belly, the head being above all beautifully spotted with white; but, he adds ('Travels in Africa,' vol. i. p. 132), "I did not observe, as Dr. Sparrman says, that this Antelope when alive resembles blue velvet, and that when dead the skin changes its colour; living or dead it appeared to me always alike. The tints of that which I brought with me never varied."

At first sight it would thus seem that the statement of Le Vaillant contradicts that of Sparrman, and also indirectly that of Pennant; but we must remember that in some Antelopes, such as Eland and Kudu, the hair becomes so scanty that the bluish hide shows beneath it in old age; and this hide, after post-mortem drying, becomes black or "leaden colour." Further, this change due to drying is actually recorded by Sir Cornwallis Harris as taking place in the Roan Antelope, the nearest living ally of the Blaauwbok, and we may therefore well assume that Le Vaillant expected to see some conspicuous change in the hairy covering itself due to chemical or other causes, such as has been observed to take place in the lilac breast-feathers of the newly-dead Gouldian Finch (Poephila gouldiæ). If the first two or three Blaauwbok obtained were infirm old bulls, easily dispatched by the uncertain and primitive weapons of the old days, we can reasonably infer that the hide, denuded through age of most of the original hairy covering, would appear conspicuously bluish during life, and conspicuously black after post-mortem drying, and thus originate the colour-change legend.

We can in these latter times form only a general idea of the habits of the Blaauwbok with the slender aid of analogy and our knowledge of allied species. Field notes of the habits of Hippotragus leucophæus will, alas! never be forthcoming, for it was hardly known even to the early colonists, and in those days there was no enthusiastic photographer with telephotic lens and screened camera to obtain sun-picture records for future generations of naturalists to debate over. Nevertheless, as the palæontologist reconstructs for us the ancient world till with vivid imagination we see again the rivers of Britain alive with bellowing Hippopotami, or watch the Pterodactyl skimming with extended parachute through the waving groves of pterophyllum, so also with the aid of analogical reasoning we may form an idea of the daily life of the Blaauwbok.

The nearest living allies are the Roan Antelope (H. equinus), a noble beast of sturdy appearance and imposing stature; and the yet more glorious Sable Antelope (H.niger), jet-black above, snow-white beneath, its head armed with magnificent horns sweeping backwards in a scimitar-like curve. Le Vaillant compares a Blaauwbok which he saw at a distance to a white Horse; and, taking everything into consideration, we may reasonably conclude that this vanished Antelope was a beautiful and stately creature, with its handsome blue-grey coat and snowy under surface well set off by the graceful sweep of the elegant though moderate-sized horns. The blue-grey colour need not have been disadvantageous to it, for travellers have assured us that the boldly coloured Roan and Sable Antelopes, in spite of their great size, are often quite invisible in the broken lights and shadows of thick bush; and especially at night the neutral greyish tint was well adapted to protect the Blaauwbok, just as our own warships painted grey become practically invisible in the gloom of night.

The brief history of the Blaauwbok is a miserable record of speedy extermination. The actual date of its discovery will probably never be known. Kolben, who visited the Cape between 1700 and 1710, mentions the "Blue Goat"; but the species was first definitely described by Pallas, who examined, in 1766, a specimen preserved at Leyden—the first one known to have been brought to Europe. From the little that is recorded of the animal, it appears to have been nowhere abundant. Le Vaillant gives as a locality, "the valley of Soete Melk, the only canton which they inhabit," and subsequently Lichtenstein mentions the mountains near the Buffalo-jagt River, between Swellendam and Algoa Bay, as one of the last refuges of the Blaauwbok. Le Vaillant obtained his specimen (a bull) in 1781; already it had become "the most scarce and beautiful species of the African Gazells." Sir John Barrow, whose work on South Africa was published in 1801, remarks that in his day the Blaauwbok was almost exterminated; while Lichtenstein says that "some" were shot in 1800, but that since then no more had been seen. These Blaauwbok of 1800 were, in fact, the last of their race.

Nevertheless, the post-mortem existence upon which the species has entered has proved almost as lively as that which it enjoyed in the flesh; for as the years passed by, and no new examples were obtained, naturalists began to inquire for it with a zeal similar to that which animated the would-be discoverers of the living Moa in New Zealand, and, more recently, the searchers after the Ground-Sloth (Mylodon listai) in Patagonia. Sir Andrew Smith, in 1835, searched for it in vain; he also says that, after studying a carefully executed drawing of the Blaauwbok in the Paris Museum, he concluded that the sketch represented merely a young Roan Antelope. His friend Sir Cornwallis Harris, who, during 1836–7, enthusiastically shot specimens of every kind of South African game animal for his collection, inquired persistently for the Blaauwbok without success. "For the last forty years," writes Harris, "not an individual has been heard of in Southern Africa"; and he adds: "For a leucophæa I would willingly have given a finger of my right hand." Finally, many zoologists boldly declared the Blaauwbok to have been a zoological myth, asserting that the few specimens still existing were merely small or young Roan Antelopes. The matter, however, was rightly settled in favour of the Blaauwbok as a true species. The measurements of several existing specimens were found to coincide; Sundevall, who examined a long series of Roan Antelope of all ages and both sexes, pointed out that the feet of the Stockholm leucophæa were smaller than those of even quite young equina; and a long list of differences between the two species has been drawn up. I have myself repeatedly examined the Leyden specimen, which plainly shows that the Blaauwbok was distinguishable by the following characters:—

1. Horns relatively longer than in the Roan Antelope.
2. Ears relatively shorter, and not pencilled at the tips.
3. Mane directed forwards.
4. Throat-hairs short.
5. No anteocular switches of hair.
6. No black on face.

Compare this with the short stout horns, immense ears, hogged mane, ruffed throat, anteocular brushes, and magpie face of the Roan. The fine bull Blaauwbok in my photograph is surely distinct enough from any of the allied species; for, if merely a small though adult Roan, why is there no black on the face; if immature, why does it carry such fine curved horns?

There is another point, not hitherto, I think, mentioned by zoologists. The geographical distribution of the two species is quite different. H. leucophæa was limited to the province of Swellendam, and finally exterminated in 1800; H. equinus was not discovered till Dec. 21st, 1801, near Leetakoo (Kuruman), in Bechuanaland, many weary leagues from "the valley of Soete Melk." Had the Blaauwbok occurred in the intervening district at any time, surely its remains, even if semi-fossilized, would have been unearthed before now.

I have compiled the following census of all recorded specimens, many of which unfortunately cannot now be found: —

1. Pallas's type-specimen. Obtained previous to 1766.

2. The Haarlem specimen. Obtained previously to 1766; mentioned by Allamand.

3. Skin seen by Sparrman near Krakeel River about 1772.

4. Skin bought at Amsterdam previous to 1781. Described by Pennant.

5. Blaauwbok bull shot near Tiger Hoek by Le Vaillant's Hottentot attendant in December, 1781. The French naturalist was fully aware of the value of his specimen, and took a drawing of it on the spot. The skin was carefully preserved.

6. Another specimen (a bull) seen by Le Vaillant during his stay in South Africa, 1781-85 ('Travels in Africa,' cf. vol. i. p. 133).

7. A Blaauwbok bull presented to the Governor subsequently to 1782, during Le Vaillant's stay at Cape Town.

8. A Blaauwbok bull had been preserved at Amsterdam for fifteen years in good condition before Le Vaillant saw it. He tells us that all the specimens he saw were much the same, thus unconsciously strengthening the claim of H. leucophæa to rank as a distinct species.

9. A specimen shot in 1799, and preserved at Berlin. Described by Lichtenstein in 1814. I do not know if this specimen is still in existence.

10, 11. "Some" shot in 1800, and sent to Leyden in skin (Lichtenstein). The last of their race.

12. Blaauwbok cow preserved at Vienna. Still in existence.

13. Blaauwbok still preserved at Stockholm. Mentioned by Sundevall, who, in his letter to Dr. Gray, pointed out the distinction between H. leucophæa and H. equina. Gray, however, united the two species.

14. Blaauwbok preserved at Upsala. Still extant.

15. Blaauwbok bull preserved at Paris. This was for many years supposed to be the only specimen of the animal in existence. Harris states that this example was unique, and that it was supposed to have come from the collection of the Stadtholder of Holland. Several zoologists of great eminence have declared it to be an immature Roan. Still in existence.

16. Finally, I may mention the very handsome Blaauwbok preserved at Leyden, which, by the kindness of the Museum authorities, I have examined, photographed, and measured. I do not know any particulars of date or history regarding this specimen.

This very fine specimen probably carries the record horns. Measurements of horns: length (along curve), 2425 in.; max. circumference, 645 in.; max, divergence, 825 in.; min, divergence, 115 in. Other measurements: height at withers, 4935 in.; length of ear, 935 in.; length of mane, 115 in.; tip of muzzle to root of tail, 7315 in. No of annulations on each horn about 35. These characters in the Leyden specimen compare very favourably with those of the bull at Paris (horns 2112 in., with 28 annulations, 45 in. at withers), and the cow at Vienna (40 in. at withers). The almost uniformly coloured face and moderate-sized ears of the Blaauwbok contrast markedly with the magpie face and immense ears of the Roan Antelope.

In addition to these skins and stuffed examples, one may mention the broken horn, supposed to have belonged to this species, figured by Button. I have also examined the horns and frontlet of this rare Antelope preserved in the Natural History Museum at South Kensington. I do not know from what specimen the so-called "Blaubok or Etaak," figured on p. 651 of the Rev. J.G. Wood's 'Natural History,' is taken; however, it does not matter, for the animal there delineated is obviously a Roan Antelope, and no Blaauwbok at all; whilst the accompanying letterpress also refers to H. equinus.

Unfortunately, as Burchell's Zebra is now so often called "Quagga" (though the true Quagga has been extinct since 1879 at very latest), so also the name "Blaauwbok" has been applied to the Blue Duiker (Cephalophus monticola), a tiny Antelope no bigger than a Hare, occurring in Cape Colony and Natal. It is regretable that this little creature, with its mouse-dun coat, tiny horns, and insignificant stature, should be liable to be confused with the beautiful Blaauwbok of Swellendam, a worthy representative of the glorious Hippotragine Antelopes, which even to-day include the Fighting Sable, the handsome Gemsbok, and the gallant Fringe-eared Oryx.

That the splendid Antelopes yet remaining may be saved by prompt and efficient protection from the untimely fate of the Blaauwbok must be the earnest wish of every true naturalist. Purple Sassaby, Red Hartebeest, Magpie Blesbok, Striped Kudu—these man can destroy, but cannot replace; and if this essay contributes ever so little towards the preservation of that magnificent fauna whose noble presence even to-day gives to many an African landscape the appearance of a vast zoological garden, it will not have been written in vain.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

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