The Gerenuk

Nicknamed the ‘giraffe gazelle’, the gerenuk (Litocranius walleri) is a long-necked antelope found in the woodland forests and open plains of the Horn of Africa (including Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Tanzania). At first glance, this mammal may seem rather strange, but their unique appearance only highlights the gerenuk’s superb adaptability.

Gerenuk

Like many other species – past and present – that have evolved to have a long neck, the gerenuk uses this adaptation to browse leaves, twigs and branches growing out of the reach of other antelopes. Moreover, the gerenuk can stand straight using its slender, hindlegs. Overall, this allows the gerenuk to reach vegetation 2 metres above the ground – quite a stretch considering they are less than a metre tall when on all four legs. This adaptation has proved immensely useful for the gerenuk, especially when browsing opportunities are sparse.

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The gerenuk’s long neck and slender legs allow it to reach vegetation high off the ground.

Their magnificent horns, present only on males, are lyre-shaped, resembling an ‘S’, and can reach up to 40cm in length. Their brown coat is coffee-coloured on the top but a lighter tan colour on the sides. They also have a cream-coloured underbelly and a patch of white fur around each eye. Gerenuks have quite large eyes and ears so they can easily sense when a predator is nearby.

Gerenuks live in small social groups – each herd only contains around two to six individuals – and are usually comprised of a single sex. Due to their small herds, they can fall prey to a whole host of African predators. Major predators of the gerenuk include leopards, cheetahs, lions, spotted hyenas, painted wolves, jackals and caracals. Unlike most antelopes, the gerenuk does not have a specific breeding season, meaning they have offspring throughout the year. Therefore, they most constantly be alert for predators.

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A pair of females on the look-out for potential predators.

Although their population is estimated at around 95,000 individuals, the gerenuk is under threat. Their population has fallen by 25% in the last 14 years. As human populations grow, we build more settlements, more roads and more farms which are gradually consuming this species’ natural habitat. Their current conservation status is ‘near-threatened’, but if nothing is done, they could soon be uplisted to ‘vulnerable’.

 

Sources:

https://www.awf.org/wildlife-conservation/gerenuk

https://animalcorner.co.uk/animals/gerenuk/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerenuk

Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.

The Mandrill

The largest of all monkeys, the mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx) is a vividly unique primate. The males have an unmistakable appearance – easily identifiable by the sky-blue and scarlet-red skin on their face, as well as an ombre of galaxy fading into crimson on their rump. This spectacular colouration makes the mandrill one of the most colourful of all mammals. Controlled by hormones, these colours grow brighter and starker when an individual gets excited. But these monkeys possess far more wonders than just their vivid skin.

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A dominant male mandrill foraging on the forest floor.

Found mainly in tropical rainforests across Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Congo, the mandrill is an extremely social animal. They live in troops (occasionally called ‘hordes’) usually consisting of a dominant male, several females, a group of youngsters, and various non-breeding, lower-ranking males. These hordes can be colossal; sometimes several groups merge to form troops of 200 or more. However, mandrill society is not a tranquil utopia full of fun and games. It has a strict hierarchy. Mandrills have long canine teeth used principally for fighting and in display. Dominant males advertise their dominance with their intense colouration, and a temperament to match. Conflict can be deadly.

Generally, males weigh around 30kg whereas females usually weigh less than half of that, with an average weight of 12kg. Mandrills are one of the most sexually dimorphic animals, meaning the two sexes exhibit different characteristics. Whilst the males have this bulky and vivid image, the females have a far less obnoxious appearance. The female’s colouration is darker, but that does not mean they lack character; female mandrills have the vital role of raising the next generation.

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A female (left) grooming a male (right).

Primarily terrestrial primates, mandrills forage on the ground for fruits, roots, insects, reptiles and amphibians. Although, they have been known to consume the young of other species of monkey, and even small antelope when desperately hungry. Mandrills have short, but fully opposable thumbs – like those of the great apes – for grasping food and manipulating objects. They also have powerful jaw muscles, allowing them to crush tough plant foods.

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Sadly, the mandrill is considered vulnerable by the ICUN. They are often hunted for bushmeat, and many African cultures consider them a delicacy. In some areas, they are considered a pest because they will destroy crops of local villages, and are subsequently killed. Deforestation, urbanisation and the growth of agriculture are also rapidly constricting their natural habitat. Thankfully, conservation and re-introduction schemes are helping to conserve the mandrill population. Charles Darwin once said “no other member in the whole class of mammals is coloured in so extraordinary a manner as the adult male mandrill’s”. Such an impressive mammal deserves protection.

 

Sources:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/m/mandrill/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandrill

https://www.monkeyworlds.com/mandrill/

Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.

The Red Panda

The red panda (Ailurus fulgens) is an arboreal, solitary mammal native to the high-altitude, temperate forests of the eastern Himalayas and southwestern China. The red panda’s unique appearance has caused some confusion among zoologists. Up until recently, some zoologists classified the red panda with the raccoons (Procyonidae), whilst others placed it in the bear family (Ursidae, a group which includes the giant panda). However, analysis of their evolutionary relationships showed that they differ so greatly from both the giant panda and raccoon that they warrant their own family, Ailuridae.

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These climbers have superb balance up in the trees.

The red panda is roughly the size of a domestic cat, but unlike carnivorous cats, these climbers feed mainly on bamboo. They are not fussy creatures though, as they may also feed on birds, eggs, insects, flowers, berries and small mammals when the opportunity presents itself. Red pandas are usually crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk, and live solitary lives, only coming together to mate. Common predators of the red panda include the snow leopard and martens, but if they feel threatened they will rapidly flee by climbing up the nearest tree. If they have no other option, they may even stand on their hind legs to make themselves appear larger and use their claws to desperately slash at their enemy.

Their striped, bushy tails have three main purposes: for balance up in the trees; for camouflage in their habitat of moss and lichen-covered vegetation; and for warmth, especially during the harsh Himalayan winters. Another fascinating adaptation of the red panda is their claws. They have strong, curved, semi-retractable claws which are designed to grasp and tear their main food source – bamboo.

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Red pandas will use their bushy tails for warmth.

With their adorable, patchy face and their fluffy, reddish-brown coat it is hard not to adore these little guys. But sadly, many do not show the worthy respect to the red panda. The red panda is endangered and the wild population is estimated at fewer than 10,000 individuals. Their main threat is habitat loss and fragmentation caused by widespread deforestation as agriculture and human population pressure constrict their native range. Another major threat for the red panda is poaching, especially in China where the population of red pandas has fallen by 40% in the past 50 years.

The Grévy’s Zebra

The largest wild species in the horse family (Equidae), the Grévy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) is a perissodactyl (odd-toed ungulate) found only in certain regions of Ethiopia and Kenya. They are one of three species of zebra, the other two being the Plain’s zebra (Equus quagga) and the Mountain zebra (Equus zebra). This herbivore lives in semi-arid grasslands where it grazes on many different types of grass which other species may not be able to.

Aside from their unique pattern of stripes, one of the most distinctive features of the Grévy’s zebra is their large, mickey-mouse-esque ears – much larger than the ears of their cousins. They also have long legs which allow them to reach 40mph when sprinting.

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A herd of zebras, also known as a zeal or dazzle.

Unlike the plains zebra, Grévy’s do not live in harems – a group of females controlled by a dominant male (called a stallion). Instead, they live in herds with loose social structures and lack a particular dominant male. These social groups may contain foals who, unlike their parents, have a brown and white striping which gradually darkens into a black and white coat as they grow. Grévy’s zebras have a relatively long gestation period of 13 months resulting in the birth of a single foal. Amazingly, newborn foals can stand after six minutes, walk after 20 minutes, and they can run after an hour. This adaptation means foals can join the herd and evade predators just after they have been born.

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Foals have a brown and white striping.

Grévy’s zebra once roamed a vast area of East Africa but have since become restricted to the horn of Africa. They are now considered endangered, with their wild population totalling no more than 2,500 individuals. In the past, their main threat was poaching for their striped skin but now their main threats seems to be habitat loss and competition with livestock, cattle in particular. Moreover, with their current population being so small and fragmented, this species may soon find it difficult to reproduce and expand the gene pool.

The Grévy’s zebra got its name in 1882 when the government in Abyssinia (the Ethiopian empire) sent one of these zebras to France. The president at the time was Jules Grévy and subsequently this new species was named in his honour. Although I would have personally preferred Mickey’s zebra.

The Tiger

Unbelievably powerful and expertly agile, the tiger (Panthera tigrisis the largest member of the cat family and the focus of tonight’s final episode of Dynasties. They occupy a vast but fragmented range from the dense jungles of Indonesia all the way up to the snowy expanses of Siberia – demonstrating their excellent adaptability in a plethora of different habitats and ecosystems. The largest individuals are found in Siberia, where the males can reach up to 300kg, yet still possess the power to jump as high as 10 metres – over five times the height of an average person.

Tiger

Tigers are magnificent hunters, consuming a diet of mainly hoofed animals such as Sambar deer, wild boar and water buffalo, although this diet will vary considerably depending on their habitat. The most striking feature of the tiger is their fiery orange coat marked with charcoal-black stripes. This beautiful fur pattern provides superb camouflage in the autumnal-toned vegetation. Their tail, which is also striped, helps tigers maintain balance when chasing after prey or climbing rocky tracts.

The tiger is the national animal of Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, South Korea and Vietnam, but these mammals are not being given the respect they deserve. Fewer than 4,000 tigers remain in the wild, spread out over six subspecies, with the South China tiger being most at threat (most likely extinct in the wild). Nine subspecies of tiger used to roam our planet, but within the past century, the Javan, Caspian and Bali tiger have all become extinct – forever gone because of human’s actions.

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Tigers occupy a range of habitats from swamps to forests to snowy plains.

It is estimated that wild tiger numbers have dropped by an abhorrent 95% since the beginning of the 20th century and now all six extant subspecies are considered either endangered (the Bengal, Siberian and Indo-Chinese tigers) or critically endangered (the Malayan, South China and Sumatran tigers). The cause of their suffering is due to human conflict; habitat loss and fragmentation; and poaching. Unfortunately, tigers live in some of the most densely populated places on earth so conflict with humans is almost inevitable in our ever-increasing crowded world. Tiger parts are also used in the fruitless and detrimental practice of traditional Chinese medicine.

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A mother and her cubs enjoying a leisurely swim.

Thankfully, conservation organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) are working closely with governments to resolve human-tiger conflicts and establish larger national parks where these tigers can hopefully live in relative peace – tigers are extremely territorial are require up to 450 kilometres squared each, so large habitats are essential. However, tigers are far from safe and their conflict with humans will only worsen unless drastic action is immediately taken. These majestic cats play such a vital ecological and cultural role in Asia that their extinction would be shamefully inexcusable.

The Painted Wolf

Also commonly known as the African wild dog, the painted wolf (Lycaon pictus) is an endangered canid native to savanna and arid habitats of sub-Saharan Africa. Although these carnivores have a range of different names, my personal favourite is the ‘painted wolf’ because it summarises their appearance perfectly. They have a wonderful, patchy coat expressing gold, black. white, brown and cream tones – like splatters of paint on a canvas. This unique pattern makes the painted wolf an unmistakable carnivore.

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Painted wolves are exceptionally social creatures, living in highly organised packs containing anywhere between 6 and 40 individuals. These packs are usually led by a monogamous breeding pair (a king and queen) which will have a litter of six to sixteen pups (the average being 10), who are cooperatively reared and cared for by the entire pack. The social life of painted wolves is admirable; they will support sick and injured-relatives by sharing their food and their love.

This carnivore is a specialised pack hunter of medium-sized antelopes and although they may not possess the speed of the cheetah, they certainly have more stamina, being able to pursue their prey at 66 km/h over 3-5 kilometres. They are diurnal predators (they hunt during daylight) and have a hugely varied diet including impala, wildebeest, waterbuck, Thomson’s gazelle, kob, reedbuck, lechwe, duiker, oribi and zebra – just to name a few. However, this diet will vary from location to location. They will usually target sick, frail or injured individuals and collaboratively take them down by cutting off escape routes and eventually isolating their meal. Their hunting strategy is one of the most effective in the world, with a hunting success rate of up to 90% in certain areas – a colossal statistic when compared with the leopard’s 30-40% success rate and the lion’s 25-30% success rate. This earns the painted wolves the respected crown for being one of the best hunters in the world.

Painted Wolf

Aside from its phenomenal endurance, painted wolves have a range other adaptations suited for survival. One of the most obvious is their blotchy coat which blends in perfectly with their golden savanna habitat. They also have huge, satellite dish ears and highly evolved noses which gives them a superb sense of hearing and smell. However, arguably their most fascinating adaptation is their ability to learn. These dogs need to know how to effectively hunt certain animals and the best tactics to survive under the harsh rule of mother nature. These necessary skills can be passed down through generations because they are quick, intelligent learners.

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A couple of painted wolf pups.

This species once roamed throughout sub-Saharan Africa but now can only be found in small fragmented locations. In 2016, they were listed as endangered by the IUCN, with an estimated total population of 6,600 individuals. Their ongoing threats include habitat loss and fragmentation, disease and human conflict. Painted wolves are one of my favourite animals – I am fascinated by their intelligence, their complex societies, their stunning coat and their expert hunting ability. With so few left, their conservation is vitally important. I am excited to witness the story of a pack of painted wolves in the upcoming episode of Dynasties – airing at 8pm tonight (GMT+0). I am sure the Dynasties team will perfectly capture the wonder and beauty of these animals.

The Lion

With the recent release of the live-action Lion King movie trailer and the next episode of Dynasties focusing on a pride of lions airing later tonight, I thought this fascinating feline would be a perfect species to talk about today. The lion (Panthera leo) is Africa’s apex predator and the only cat that lives in groups, known as prides. A lion pride usually consists of a few males, related females and cubs although as the males grow up, they will leave the pride and establish their own family elsewhere.

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Lion prides are exceptionally loving and intimate; they try to keep their bonds strong.

Once upon a time, lions roamed across a vast portion of the Old World; from Greece to India. However, lions have since been eradicated from Europe and only a small population of Asiatic lions remains in the Gir Forest National Park in Gujarat, western India. African lions, which once roamed throughout the continent, are now only found in certain hotspots dotted across sub-Saharan Africa. They are mainly found in grassy plains and savannas, especially areas with large trees, such as acacia trees, that provide a nice bit of shade to keep the lions cool.

Lions are sexually dimorphic – this means that males and females exhibit different characteristics, aside from their genitalia. The main difference in lions is that males develop a thick mane as they grow up whereas females do not. Both sexes display a remarkable, golden coat and a muscular build, sometimes faint spots may be seen on their legs and underparts which they acquired when they were a cub.

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A lion cub displaying their faint spots adapted for camouflage.

Males usually take on the role of defending the pride’s territory whilst females do most of the hunting. Groups of females will often work together to bring down large prey – usually ungulates (hoofed mammals) such as plains zebra, blue wildebeest, Cape buffalo, Thomson’s gazelle, gemsbok and even giraffes. After a group hunt, the pride will squabble over the kill, with those at the top of the social order getting first pick whilst those at the bottom of the pecking order (cubs) will have to sit and wait their turn.

Although lions are an apex predator, that doesn’t mean they will pass on a free meal. As opportunists, they will occasionally steal kills from hyenas or wild dogs. Lions and spotted hyenas occupy a very similar ecological niche, and that results in a lot of competition between these two species. These two carnivores will often fight each other for meals and territory, causing some nasty injuries. If you watch Episode 3 of Dynasties at 8pm later tonight (GMT+0), you will see how the competition between these two fierce species can lead to some rather gruesome scenes.

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An image of pure majesty.

Life as a lion is not easy. But on top of all their natural threats, they also suffer at the hands of us humans. Habitat loss and conflict with local people are their major threats and they are thus listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Lions are such adaptable hunters that they will seek out livestock in local villages, and the locals often respond with violence. Lions play such a crucial role in our global culture – in sculptures, in films, in paintings, in literature, in sport and in national flags. They are the quintessential image of bravery, resilience and collaboration. Therefore, lions must be protected and appreciated because they are truly wonderful creatures.