Bontebok and blesbok are two similar but distinct antelope species that came close to extinction. These colourful beasts – especially the bontebok – owe their continued existence to a few stubborn landowners, some fences and one of the first examples of a South African conservation ethic.

Did you know?

When rounding up females, the males stalk them in a rather comical ‘lowstretch’ position.

The bontebok has a rather special place in South African conservation.

Firstly, it is found nowhere else in the world, being endemic to South Africa’s Cape fynbos.

Secondly, it was the first antelope to be conserved. Why? Simply because bontebok, like their cousins the blesbok, can’t jump. They are something of an anomaly among the more acrobatic eland, kudu, springbok and impala. Bontebok and blesbok can be confined with normal sheep fencing.

In fact, the fence that saved the last 17 bontebok on Earth still stands near the southern Cape town of Arniston. It was built by a farmer, Alexander van der Bijl, in 1837.

In those days hunting the last of a species was considered an achievement rather than a disgrace, so that fenced sanctuary literally stood between the bontebok and extinction. The last blue buck had been shot in 1799 and the extinction of the quagga came in 1883.

Bontebok numbers hovered in the low hundreds for many years, until the 1930s when a national park outside Swellendam was declared specifically to conserve it. Even then, it was problematic, and it was only when a new site was chosen and they were also translocated to other parks that the bontebok began to thrive. From 17, their numbers have risen to around 3 500 today.

The bontebok (which means spotted or ‘patchwork buck’ in Afrikaans) is closely related to blesbok (which means ‘blaze buck’ because of the broad white stripe down its nose), and is easily confused with it. In fact, bontebok are thought to have evolved from a group of blesbok isolated in the fynbos biome, possibly because of climatic conditions.

Blesbok by contrast, are adapted to life in the high grasslands and Karoo. While never quite as threatened as the bontebok, blesbok numbers also sank perilously low in the early 1900s. Also originally endemic to South Africa, blesbok are now distributed as far north as as the Zambezi River, thanks to human ‘interference’.

Their colouration is similar, with white bellies and legs, white blazes on their faces and reddish brown bodies, shading to a purplish black.

The male blesbok and bontebok can be particularly entertaining to watch. They make a point of invading each other’s territories, and go through a whole sequence of actions meant to test dominance.

They start with head shaking and tail-swishing, standing parallel with ears outspread, moving through the more threatening ground-horning and chasing one another.

Very rarely do they actually kneel down, lock horns and do actual battle.

Travel tips & Planning info

How to get here

Your best chance of seeing bontebok is, predictably, at the Bontebok National Park outside Swellendam, less than 2 hours’ drive from Cape Town. They’re also plentiful at De Hoop Nature Reserve, not far from Cape Agulhas. Blesbok can be seen at the Karoo National Park, Mountain Zebra National Park and a number of provincial reserves in the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal.

Best time to visit

You could see them most times of year, but from October to December, you’ll probably see many pale, fuzzy babies, which are delightful.

Get around

At all these destinations, you would stand an excellent chance of seeing the buck ('buck' is used as a generic term in South Africa to describe all antelope, no matter their sex) as you drive yourself around.

Length of stay

If you’re staying at a national park, it’s always better to stay 2 nights or more if you can. One night is just too little for a satisfactory experience.

What to pack

Take along binoculars and a camera with a zoom lens if possible.