Why has the gerenuk (Litocranius walleri) become such a focus for photographers?

One would not expect the gerenuk (Litocranius walleri) to be particularly frequently photographed. It lives in remote areas, its populations are sparse, it is shy, its appearance is rather dull apart from a graceful lankiness, and it is uncommon in zoos.

In the sixties and seventies, few photos of the gerenuk were available. Pierre Dandelot and Helmut Diller, painting the species for the best field guidebooks of the seventies and eighties, erred considerably in their depictions, presumably because they had little material to examine. Yet today, photos on the Web are too many to keep track of. The gerenuk is surpassed only by the springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis) as the most frequently-photographed gazelle in the wild.

The blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) has, understandably, been photographed extremely frequently. This gregarious and spectacular gazelle still occurs widely in semi-wild conditions in India, where a rising tech-savvy Middle Class, combining the regard for animals of Hinduism with that of the colonial English, has produced more wildlife photographers than expected in a poor country. The blackbuck is the most successful gazelle in zoos worldwide. It is also kept on hunting ranches in the USA and Argentina; there are more photos on the Web of the blackbuck in Texas alone than there are of most species of gazelles in any situation.

Such explanations hardly apply to the gerenuk. Instead, its obvious appeal is anthropomorphic: extreme bipedality for an ungulate while foraging (see http://tallday.co.uk/2015/09/17/gerenuk-almost-on-stilts/ and https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/66279951).

People love, in animals, not only upright bipedality (penguins) but also other anthropomorphic features such as flattish faces (many primates but not e.g. baboons), binocular placement of the eyes (cats and primates), and apparently smiling mouths (dolphins). Hypothetically any animal combining several of these features would be particularly photogenic, and the popularity of the suricate (Suricata suricatta) can largely be explained by its combination of bipedal standing/sitting, binocular placement of the eyes and a suggestion of a smile (see https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=39396&picture=suricate-or-meerkat-sitting). Penguins feature only bipedality, but they score in that they actually walk bolt-upright, and they also have the attractive dark/pale contrasts of a jacket and shirt.

The gerenuk does not walk bipedally, its eyes are on the sides of its head, and its facial profile is pinched and pointed. However, even this head, when viewed directly from the front, can appear somewhat childlike in perspective with the eyes large relative to the small face, and a hint of a smile (see https://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photography-antelope-close-up-detail-african-gerenuk-face-big-ears-image30627197). Thus anthropomorphism, more than the particular biological interest of a 'giraffe-gazelle', may help to explain the proliferation of photos of the gerenuk.

Posted on April 06, 2021 09:50 AM by milewski milewski


These are very interesting facts, corresponding well with the popularity of photography of this kind. However, there is also a second level that should not be forgotten. The fact that gerenuk can be easily seen in nature, and thus photographed well, is of great interest, given the environment in which these animals live. While e.g. in Ethiopia, it is a relatively significant problem to trace this species, and it has many more vast undisturbed habitats in the country. It could be said that the difficulty of tracking this species is already close to another species - dibatag, which if you want to see you have to undertake a demanding several-day expedition without any guarantee of success. The situation in Kenya is diametrically opposed. And this is mainly due to the huge tourism in the area of ​​the ecosystem of the northern Samburu-BuffaloSprings-Shaba reserves. Generuks in this region are highly semi-habituated, well accustomed to the presence of people, and the great bustle of the bush caused by cars. This is complemented by the fact that the highest density of this species is in the Samburu National Reserve. The frequency of meeting gerenuk than other species (Nanger granti, Aepyceros melampus, Madoqua sp.,) Is extremely high. Compared to other Kenyan ecosystems (Tsavo East and Tsavo West), where gerenuks are also common but less frequently photographed, the explanation is the vast area, and therefore the less tolerance of animals to humans. In Tanzania, gerenuks are almost rare, especially along the border with Kenya in the east. For example, Mkomazi National Park states that it has a relatively stable and high population. But try to go to Mkomazi and take pictures of gerenuk - impossible, chances are minimal.

Posted by michalsloviak about 3 years ago

Thank you, michalsloviak, for your comment. It would be interesting to calculate the percentage of the total number of observations of the gerenuk in iNaturalist that are located in the Samburu-Buffalo Springs-Shaba area.

Posted by milewski about 3 years ago

Is it possible that another factor is competition between the gerenuk and the lesser kudu (Tragelaphus imberbis)? Perhaps the lesser kudu is commoner in Mkomazi-Tsavo than in Samburu-Buffalo Springs-Shaba?

Posted by milewski about 3 years ago

I am not aware that there is competition between gerenuk and lesser kudu. So we certainly cannot say that it is a direct competition. I am not saying that this is completely out of the question, but from the point of view of ecology of these two species is rather unlikely. But that's just my opinion. In Samburu these species do not meet, on the contrary in Tsavo, especially Tsavo West, yes, but it is an incomparably larger and big area.

When we take a closer look at the lesser kudu, it should be noted that this species is not really common anywhere. Observations are random, often second moments. Many Kenyans say this antelope is the most shy. Probably the only area in Kenya where there are more numerous records of its occurrence through direct observations (by which we can assume a high number and density in this area) is Tsavo West. I think that in other places, including Tsavo East, his observations are rare, no doubt also in Mkomazi. It is even more numerous in the vicinity of the river Tana. But in general, the lesser kudu is an extremely shy and elusive species of antelope, which is not so true of the gerenuk. And I have no information that lesser kudu has ever been observed in the Samburu-Buffalo-Shaba ecosystem. The Guides (and also based on literature) on this area declare that Lesser kudu occurs there commonly. But that's probably not entirely true. However, there is certainly a Greater kudu (very small population) in Samburu, which, unlike the lesser kudu, is possibly not present in the Tsavo ecosystem.

Posted by michalsloviak about 3 years ago

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