Bontebok (Damaliscus pygargus)

Bontebok lying down
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Bontebok fact file

Bontebok description

GenusDamaliscus (1)

There are two very distinct subspecies of this handsome African antelope, the mammals (D. p. pygargus) and the blesbok (D. p. phillipsi), both of which are extinct as wild animals and owe their survival to their existence in National Parks, game reserves, and on farms. Their body is compact with a short neck and long narrow face (2), and both sexes carry simple, lyre-shaped horns, although the female’s are more slender (4). The beautiful bontebok, perhaps the rarest antelope in southern Africa (5), has a rich brown coat with a purplish gloss, and a distinctive white face, white buttocks, white belly and white ‘socks’ (2). The white facial blaze is usually unbroken which distinguishes it from the blesbok, whose white blaze is normally broken by a brown band between the eyes (4). The blesbok also differs by having a dull reddish-brown coat, which lacks the purple gloss, with lighter brown buttocks and off-white lower legs (2).

Also known as
Damaliscus dorcas.
Head-body length: 140 – 160 cm (2)
Tail length: 30 – 45 cm (2)
Female weight: 55 – 70 kg (2)
Male weight: 65 – 80 kg (2)

Bontebok biology

Both the mammals and blesbok are grazing antelopes that spend their day feeding on short grass. They are less active during the hotter midday hours and routinely stand in groups facing the sun, frequently nodding their lowered heads (4).

Bontebok adult males defend territories all year round (5), marking them with dung and urine (2), and chasing away any intruding males from large bachelor herds of young males that roam at will (5). Small nursery herds of two to eight females and their young commonly remain with the same territorial male all year round, which is an interesting feature of bontebok territoriality (6). The territorial males encourage any passing females to stay by carrying out a special sexual display (5). Blesboks have a similar social structure to the bontebok, with a few noticeable differences. Nursery herds are generally larger, consisting of up to 25 females (2), and adult males do not maintain their territories during winter and spring. During this cold, dry season very large mixed-age groups of up to 650 animals may be formed. In order to conserve energy during this period of scarce food, there is little activity of any kind (5).

Bonteboks mate between January and March (5), with lambs being born from September to October (4), while blesbok mating peaks in April (2), and most lambs are born from November to January (4). Both subspecies have an eight month gestation period and their young are up and mobile within an hour or two of birth. Females mature in about two years and can live for up to 17 years (2)


Bontebok range

Historically, the bontebok was restricted to the coastal plain of the southwestern Cape, South Africa (1), between Bot River (near Hermanus) in the west and Mossel Bay in the east (6), but it is now restricted to the Bontebok National Park and a few reserves and private farms within that same area. The largest single population occurs in De Hoop Nature Reserve near Bredasdorp (4).

Formerly, the blesbok occurred on the highveld of South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho (1), but due to hunting they were exterminated from Swaziland and Lesotho before 1900, and by the late 19th century, populations in South Africa were also reduced (5). Since then, numbers have recovered on farms and game reserves and they have been introduced to areas far beyond their natural range, (Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe) (1), but they are only found on enclosed land (4).


Bontebok habitat

The bontebok inhabits coastal grass plains with fynbos vegetation, whereas the blesbok inhabits open grasslands of southern African highveld (1) (2).


Bontebok status

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Subspecies Damaliscus pygargus pygargus (mammals) is classified as Near Threatened (NT) and Damaliscus pygargus phillipsi (blesbok) is classified as Least Concern (LC) (1). Subspecies D. p. pygargus is also listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern


Bontebok threats

Hunting for their meat and skins has bought both these subspecies close to the brink of extinction in the past. Bontebok numbers were severely reduced by the 1830s, but luckily farmers in the Bredasdorp area had the foresight to enclose the remaining wild mammals on their land, saving this subspecies from extinction (5). Blesbok, which were hunted in their thousands, were also saved by protection on farms and game reserves (5). While hunting and trade of both subspecies still occurs, this is believed to be strictly controlled and so no longer a threat (1). Today, the main threat is hybridisation between the bontebok and blesbok (1), which, while this does not threaten the existence of the species, could result in the loss of these distinct and unique subspecies.


Bontebok conservation

While the mammals and blesbok sadly no longer roam wild in South Africa, the species’ survival is now much more secure (2), although somewhat dependent on the continued existence of the farms and game reserves on which they occur. Both subspecies also occur in protected areas (1); one of which was created in 1931 to protect the last 30 bontebok left in the wild, the Bontebok National Park, South Africa (7).

View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

Find out more

For further information on the bontebok and blesbok see:

  • IUCN Red List:
  • Mills, G. and Hes, L. (1997) The Complete Book of Southern African Mammals. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.



Authenticated (11/04/08) by Dr Jeremy David.



The natural shrubland vegetation occurring in the southwestern and southern Cape Province of South Africa, holding the greatest diversity of plant species in the world. Fynbos is characterised by tall shrubs with large leaves, heath-like shrubs, wiry reed-like plants, and bulbous herbs.
The state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
High-altitude grassland, generally between 1,200 and 1,800 metres above sea level, with ten percent or less woody plant cover, and frequent fires caused by lightning strikes.
Cross-breeding between two different species or subspecies.
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.


  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2009)
  2. Kingdon, J. (1997) The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. Academic Press Limited, London.
  3. CITES (December, 2007)
  4. Stuart, C. and Stuart, T. (1997) Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Africa. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
  5. Mills, G. and Hes, L. (1997) The Complete Book of Southern African Mammals. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
  6. David, J. (2008) Pers. comm.
  7. South African National Parks: Bontebok National Park (December, 2007)

Image credit

Bontebok lying down  
Bontebok lying down

© Peter Chadwick

Peter Chadwick
P.O.Box 565
Bredarsdorp 7280
South Africa
Tel: +27 (82) 373 4190


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