Gemsbok antelope are the handsome icons of the Kalahari. Also known as oryx, gemsbok exude a feisty spirit. Thanks to their long, sharp horns, alertness and ability to speed away from danger, predators seldom have any luck catching them. They can also survive extreme heat.

Did you know?

In Europe’s Mediaeval times, gemsbok horns were sold as unicorn horns.

As they stand proud on a red Kalahari dune, gemsbok antelope look like members of an immaculately clad presidential guard.

Their rapier horns, striking face masks, sleek fawn-and-black bodies with proud, horsey tails look like uniforms dreamt up by a top designer.

But good looks are not the only reason these stunning animals, also known as oryx, are so remarkable. They can also endure astonishingly hot temperatures, allowing their body to heat up beyond the point where most animals would collapse from heat exhaustion. They avoid damaging their brains by through a network of arteries that cool the blood.

They can also choose to slow their metabolisms to use less energy. And by breathing more slowly and deeply, these buck (in South Africa, 'buck' is a generic word for an antelope, whether male or female) also minimise the moisture lost in exhaling.

They are the ultimate survivors of desert extremes – and manage to look good doing it. They’re also difficult animals for lions and other predators to catch.

Gemsbok are speedy, feisty and alert, with sharp horns they do not hesitate to use. In fact, they are legendary for being able to flick away a stone thrown in their direction with a horn. Cricketers would give their eye teeth for such heightened spatial awareness.

They can sometimes occur in herds of a few hundred, but are mostly found in groups of a dozen or so. They are equal opportunity beasts in that a high-ranking dominant female leads them, but she is directed by an alpha male who usually brings up the rear.

As befits the spirit of the desert, gemsbok are most easily seen in the arid Kalahari region, often catching breezes on the red-tinted dunes. But they’re also seen outside of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.

You’ll find them at Augrabies National Park, Tankwa Karoo, Mountain Zebra, Karoo and Mokala national parks.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

SANParks reservations
Tel: +27 (0)12 428 9111

How to get here

For the best chance to see gemsbok, head for the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park on the border between Botswana and South Africa. Before it became a transfrontier park, this was known as the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, and it still lives up to its old name.

Best time to visit

You’ll be able to see gemsbok any time of year. In summer they tend to congregate under the shade of broad camelthorn trees.

Get around

You’ll easily be able to see them from the road, but the Kalahari has deep sand and a high-clearance vehicle is preferable to a sedan.

Length of stay

Any trip to the beautiful Kalahari needs at least four days to begin to do it justice.

What to pack

The Kalahari, where you are most likely to find gemsbok, is a semi-desert, with extreme temperatures. Summer daytime temperatures are dry and very hot. Winters can be bitterly cold. Pack accordingly, and don’t forget the camera.

Where to stay

National parks like the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park offer excellent self-catering accommodation. The same applies in the Northern Cape provincial parks.