Species: Connochachaetes taurinus / Connochaetes gnuo
There are two species of wildebeest or gnu: common wildebeest, also known as the blue wildebeest (Connochachaetes taurinus), and black wildebeest (Connochaetes gnuo) also known as the white tailed gnu. The common wildebeest has five subspecies, while there are no subspecies of the black wildebeest. The common wildebeest subspecies: common wildebeest (Connochachaetes taurinus), cookson’s wildebeest (C. t. cooksoni), nyassa or johnston’s wildebeest (C. t. johnstoni), eastern white-bearded wildebeest (C. t. albojubatus), and western white-bearded wildebeest (C. t. mearnsi)
Conservation Status: Common Wildebeest: Least concern / Black Wildebeest: Least concern Habitat and Distribution
Wildebeest’s habitats consist of short-grass plains, acacia savannas, and dryer woodlands, where water is accessible. Parts of eastern Africa and most of southern Africa support the entire wildebeest population, however in Malawi, the wildebeest is extinct. Around 70% of the wildebeest population lives in the Serengeti Mara.
Ecology and Behavior
Wildebeest are a migratory species that move in search of fresh grass, water, and minerals. It is thought that the need for the mineral phosphorus is what drives the wildebeest into migration. They hold the record for the largest land migration at approximately 1.3 million wildebeest, however smaller herds may not migrate. On the Serengeti, the white bearded wildebeest follow a clockwise migration from the southeastern plain during the wet season of January and February, toward Lake Victoria in the northwest. In June they head to the Masai Mara in the north where they stay throughout the dry season. In November they return south to complete the full migratory circle. Hunted by land and water predators, wildebeest find protection by living in groups. They form an enclosed wall by surrounding their young and sick particularly when crossing rivers and when females are calving. During the same period of about two or three weeks, 80% of females give birth to their young. Newborn calves are expected to stand and run within the first moments after birth and within just days a healthy calf is able to run at the same speed as its mother as she keeps up with the rest of the herd. Adult wildebeests are also able to defend themselves by kicking their hard-hoofed feet.
Threats and Conservation
Because wildebeest play a major roll in the ecosystem, particularly as a food source for many carnivores, their preservation is critical. Loss of fertile habit is the primary threat for this species. Fences and highways like the proposed Serengeti Highway, prohibit migration between wet and dry seasons. Although wildebeest dwell in plains and savannas, deforestation also creates a threat due to its effect on the watershed by significantly decreasing their access to water. Expropriation of irrigation, which redistributes water from their habitat for agricultural purposes, creates a hazard as well. Other human related threats include poaching and the spread of livestock diseases. Natural illnesses such as sleeping sickness, also poses a threat. Due to the restoration of the Serengeti, the common wildebeest population has increased and stabilized from 1,300,000 to 1,550,000 in recent years; however the cookson, nyasa, and eastern white bearded wildebeest have been on the decline, with the eastern white bearded rapidly decreasing. Currently, the population of the black wildebeest is increasing. The wildebeest, largely due to their seasonal migrations, directly supports ecotourism. Witnessing the wildebeest migrations has become increasingly popular with tourists and visitors.