Locked up

Sabi Sand | June 2019

Only twice in my guiding career have I witnessed kudu bulls fighting. It is not a common occurrence to actually view the titans of the antelope specie locking horns in the wild, let alone for the occurrence to happen in an open clearing with a non-obstructive view.

Kudu bulls are impressive by size and the last time I was called into a sighting of two kudu bulls fighting, it resulted in both bulls being killed by hyena a few days after the fight had started. They had locked their horns through the various twists and turns. Kudu show strong sexual dimorphism in that bulls have massive, long, spiral horns, which reach record lengths of up to 1.8 m.

The more they pushed or pulled, the tighter the lock became and the they had to contort their bodies and necks to try remain standing. Over several days it took its toll on their bodies and they soon succumbed to a clan of hyenas that eventually killed both of the large bulls. It was arguably one of the toughest things to watch over the course of five days. As gentle as nature can be, it can be one of the most ruthless.

Returning back to my new story… The misty cool conditions were the perfect temperature to be out on game drive and there was much activity was occurring throughout the reserve as the radio crackled consistently with sightings from the start. Whilst moving to a leopard sighting, the echoing sound of knocking horns caught our attention. We could hear the sound being emitted and knew it could draw in a predator in much the same way it drew our attention to investigate what was happening. In the open grass clearing several kudu bulls were sparring and few of them were a little more serious.

On my first encounter of viewing this activity a few years ago, the two kudus were already in a locked position. Now watching the bulls continually knock and push each other, it was clear how quickly the horns could lock up with an ultimate demise of death if they were unable to free themselves.

After thinking about my last experience I have to wonder, is the fight worth the effort and the risk? The age-old question that drives a male to court females in the wild and, more importantly, why would you risk your life for hierarchical reign above other submissive bulls? With no parental care duties required from the bulls, or even having the standard requirement of marking out a territorial area like most other species, is it all instinctive? There is absolutely no territorial spacing that exists amongst kudu bulls. Bulls join female herds during mating, but favour other habitats out of the mating season.

Even though the evolution-related purpose of mating can be said to be reproduction, it is not actually the creating of offspring, which originally causes them to mate. It is probable that they mate because they are motivated for the actual copulation, and because this is connected with a positive experience. This could be the easiest form of answering a difficult question. With the pondering thoughts and questions being debated we watched the kudus merge into the thick bush no longer showing any interest in the sparing event. We travelled along our way deep in our thoughts wondering about the kudus only to come across a leopard that just killed a male impala that was far too busy rutting with other males and the leopard took full advantage of its distraction.

Now back to my question, why do they do it?