Gnu or wildebeest in Etosha Park

Gnu are one of the most prevalent of the large mammals in Africa. However, numbers have dramatically decreased in the last century due to man-made boundaries preventing migration routes.

It is thought that the name “gnu” originates from either the Khoikhoi, t’gnu, or from the San name, !nu. Both of these names imitate the grunting noise that gnu make. In Namibia gnu are more commonly referred to by their Afrikaans name, wildebeest. This can either mean ‘wild cattle’ or more intriguingly ‘wild beast’, possibly due to their rugged appearance.

In the interests of transparency, the main reason we are writing this post is so we can share the wonderful Flanders and Swann song performed by the Muppets. So skip the rest of the text and play the video.

Wildebeest are best known for their mass migration from the Masai Mara to the Serengeti. But not all populations are migratory. Black gnu often have a range of only one square kilometre, while their blue cousins seem undecided, some populations migrate while others choose to stay home. In Namibia there are large populations in Etosha Park and through the central savannah. They are seldom found in more arid regions of Damaraland and Sossusvlei.

Gnu are odd looking animals with long, rectangular faces, shaggy beards, upward curving horns (which feature on both girl and boy gnus), muscular shoulders but rather incongruous slender legs.

Gnu or wildebeest in Etosha Park
Gnu or wildebeest in Etosha Park


Zebra and gnu are often found together on the plains of Etosha. They have a symbiotic relationship – zebra grazing on long grass and wildebeest preferring shorter grasses. Zebra are more intellectual than their mentally challenged counterparts, remembering migration routes and guiding lost gnu. To counter this wildebeest have an excellent sense of smell and can detect water even in the harshest environments.

Gnu are active in the cool of the day (early morning and late afternoon) and enjoy a siesta during the hotter parts of the day. However they are noisy sleepers, making it easy for predators to detect them.



They enjoy short grass and the occasional leaf. They also need to drink frequently and cannot go without water for more than a few days. Gnu play a very important part of the veld ecosystem, their dung fertilizes the soil and their grazing and trampling encourages new growth 

Wildebeest moms give birth to a single calf, in the middle of the herd (not looking for seclusion).  Amazingly nearly 80% of calves are born within a few weeks of each other. This surfeit of calves in a short period results in a larger number reaching maturity and is really a case of safety in numbers.

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