21 March 2011 by Julienne du Toit

Spirit of the Desert Plays Cricket

I’d be hard put to pick my favourite animal in the African bush, but I have to confess an inordinate fondness for the oryx (also called gemsbok).

Spend any time among them, set against the golden grasses and red dunes in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, and you will have the inescapable feeling of being amongst royalty.

Biologist and author Richard Estes describes them quite simply as ‘Spirit of the desert embodied in an antelope’ and I have never come across a better description.

Their scimitar horns, masked faces, clean limbs and swishing tails make them look like knights’ mounts, but that they are far tougher than warhorses.

The oryx thrive in waterless wildernesses where few other antelope survive.  They hardly need to drink water - surviving on what little moisture they find in tough dry grasses and a few odd leaves. They endure incredibly high temperatures without showing the least need for shade. Their brains are shielded from overheating by a complicated arrangement of blood vessels that allow maximum cooling within their bodies.

There’s one other thing I always heard about oryx, but never could confirm. It concerns their ability to hit a thrown stone or a ball with their horns.  They certainly have an acute sense of their horns, and if you watch for a while you’ll see how dexterous they are, delicately scratching itches on their rumps with rapier-like appendages.

But until a friend came upon a semi-tame oryx on a game farm, I’d carried on wondering about their batting abilities. My friend tossed a small stone towards his head, and the oryx effortlessly knocked it for six. It was like watching Jacques Kallis.

Category: Wildlife

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